Imperialism and garden gnomes

July 24, 2008

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field reviews a satirical novel by Nick Mamatas that's written for the post-9/11 era.

AFTER 9/11, U.S. society went a little bit nuts--that's the starting point of Nick Mamatas' satirical novel Under My Roof.

The story begins when 12-year-old narrator Herbert Weinberg and his father Daniel build a nuclear bomb in their garage. Daniel's plan to buy commercial-grade uranium over the Internet and find 5,000 smoke detectors to scavenge for parts in the city dump may sound crazy, Herbert tells us, but "actually, the problem was that he was going mad more slowly and in the opposite direction from everyone else."

Nuke complete, Daniel and Herbert stick it in a garden gnome and declare their independence from the United States--their house on Long Island now constituting the nuclear-armed nation Weinbergia.

Like any good satirist, Mamatas' strength is his observance of small details. For example, Herbert (who just happens to be telepathic) relates what it looks like when adults flirt:

[T]here were Rich and Adrienne, sitting on the corner of my low twin bed, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, and both of them staring at my screensaver, of all things. They were even murmuring about it ("Oh, it flickers like that all night?" "No, it stops after 10 minutes or so.") and they were even thinking what they said. Usually, when people make empty comments, they're thinking about something else.

Review: Under My Roof

Nick Mamatas, Under My Roof. Soft Skull Press, 2007, 144 pages, $12.95

That same attention to the little things is used to send up American culture and politics, often hilariously. Herbert's homework assignments perfectly capture the simultaneous inanity and ideology of schooling:

The Social Studies unit was on immigration--my job was to find an immigrant and interview him or her about coming to America. I had to fill out this sheet explaining Five Reasons Why Your Immigrant--my immigrant?--Left His Or Her Home Country and Five Reasons Why He or She Likes America. Then I had to get a picture of something my immigrant thinks represents America and paste it into the workbook.

Meanwhile, Weinbergia's example is being followed all over the country, and the U.S. government doesn't like it.

When a local Qool Mart declares itself the newly-independent Islamic Republic of Qool Mart, the Qool Mart franchise is unimpressed, declaring via telecast:

[W]e have ordered an air strike on the Port Jameson store. We'd like to make it absolutely clear that this is a private response. The U.S. government is not a part of this operation, though it has allowed use of its air space for the event. Indeed, our insurer, Bell, Winston, and Associates, has taken care of all the incidentals, from selecting the contractors to the sale of overseas rights for ancillary markets. We will also be releasing a one-shot magazine commemorating the forthcoming tragedy, called Freedom's Qool, which will be our periodical upsell for November of this year.

The absurdity keeps escalating, toward an ending that I won't give away.

In real life, the years since 9/11 have seen not only utter insanity in what passes for mainstream political discourse, but also an increasing rejection of the worst elements of U.S. society--especially among young people. High school students around the country led walkouts for immigrant rights on May Day 2006; on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, 250 students at Princeton High School walked out of classes in protest; and so-called Millennials, on college campuses, at work and in the military, are to the left of decades of prevailing social policy on issue after issue.

It is young people like these, turning against the absurdity of American policies--within its borders and outside them--but often feeling alone in their critique, who I think will benefit the most from reading Under My Roof.

Further Reading

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