Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Guest Post: One White Dude

With the inexplicably popular novel The Da Vinci Code back on top as the certainly-a-blockbuster movie version comes out, I thought it might be time to look back and wonder, once again, what bothered me so dang much the first time I came across this pretentious mess of second-rate historical revisionism.

At first, I thought it might be the utter lack of any female characters with more depth than the cardboard box I ate last night’s pizza out of – in a novel with almost sickly pretenses of feminist grandeur. But no, that wasn’t really it.

Then I thought it could be the tired (and very well-described) association of imperfect bodies with evil minds – because, as we all know, if you use a cane or can’t sunbathe in June, you must be the scion of satan’s minions, or some other such offensive inanity. But no – as bothersome as that was, that wasn’t really quite the gist of what rubbed me so much the wrong way.

And then I stumbled on it, in the most unlikely of places. Because I can’t seem to stop my Saturday-afternoon trash novel indulgence, I was recently reading John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardener – a novel as far away geographically and philosophically as one can get from Dan Brown, and which yet possesses that same excuse of a plot device that pretends to answer all the questions of the universe: One White Dude. Yes, that’s it – One White Dude.

Without ruining too much of either plot (for those gullible fans among us who haven’t yet ponied up the cash to pay off your library fines and borrow the books – or, god forbid, actually buy one of them: you might want to stop reading now) both novels ultimately find the root of evil in the dullest of places. Both take on the great evils of their realm – the founding lies of the Christian church in the former, the fatal machinations of the industrial-pharmaceutical complex in the latter – and after a couple hundred pages of intrigue and the rising hooded face of evil darkening our doors, what we’re left with is, put simply, One White Dude. One Bad White Dude. As it turns out, it’s not the thousand-year history of the church that foments Dan Brown’s ultimate evil, or the legacy of imperial rule over the black body in Africa that flows from Le Carre’s righteously-angered pen: it’s just One White Dude.

This is rich material. This is the territory of great philosophers and rabid socialists and radical reformers of the status quo hegemonic capitalist-patriarchal establishment. This is the heady stuff from which novelists can turn from mere commentators into shapers of a transformed reality. And yet, neither one managed to cough up more than one pale white man to play fall guy to the corruption of a humanity gone bad.

In other words, I wanted something juicy. I wanted world systems theory and a big hit of post-patriarchal punch wrapped into a novel I could digest between afternoon tea and midnight snack and still be satisfied at breakfast the next morning. But instead of digging into the trove of tarnished treasure and singing out the screaming indictment of human decay, Brown and LeCarre backed down when it counted most. Instead of reaming through the lies and the corruption with the laser-clean cut of diamond through cheap glass, all I got was One White Dude. Who’s the villain? Not post-imperialist capitalism, not hetero-patriarchal cultural appropriation, not hegemonic neo-colonialism, none of that delicious stuff. Just One White Dude.

And therein lies my great disappointment. These are the sorts of authors that pick their topics with just enough acumen to lend them some street cred – but without ever having to do the dirty work of wondering at (never mind actually questioning) the way in which those One White Dudes and their ilk rise to the corrupting power, the way in which those One White Dudes represent something deeper, grander, more powerful, and far more sinister than what’s hidden only inside their own pale skins. Nope, this is what counts as cultural criticism for the masses these days: just One White Dude. And once he’s vanquished…well, there’s nothing left to see here, folks. Move along.

Just don’t trip over that pesky hetero-imperialist hegemon on your way out the theatre door.