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Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America - review

Olivia Laing reviews a song of praise to the body of America.

Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Vintage, £9.99

Journalists love to claim their despatches come from the Other Side, out there in the shadowy badlands, far from the metropolis. Usually the word is straight code for slumming: Hunter S Thompson putting on his biker’s leathers, Truman Capote hanging out at Garden City jail, Joan Didion peering through oversized sunglasses at the bloated corpse of the Summer of Love. What makes John Jeremiah Sullivan – the mellifluously named heir-apparent of American magazine journalism – unusual is that he’s not playing at de haut en bas tourism.

In a witty profile of the Guns n’ Roses frontman, Axl Rose, he describes their shared home state of Indiana as “nowhere”, a void in “the blood-soaked jigsaw puzzle that is this country’s regional scheme”. Later, Sullivan collars the reader with the appealingly folksy decla - ration: “I don’t know how it is where you are, but in the South, where I live . . .” He is not always charmed by the things he encounters, but he never lets you forget that he’s calling from home.

For the past decade, Sullivan has been on a grand tour, exploring the facets of America from Disneyworld and Hurricane Katrina to the Tea Party and the blues. Pulphead is an assemblage of artefacts, some ancient and some so new that most spectators would struggle to contextualise them. Laid out on the page, they converge to build a kind of Magic Eye portrait of a nation that seems lethally at odds with itself.

His kinship with people more commonly regarded with suspicion by the bicoastal intelligentsia makes for disarming reading. Take the opening essay, a report from Creation, a Christian rock festival. Sullivan is briefly mistaken for a paedophile before he almost crushes tens of God-loving tweens when the brakes fail on his monstrous 29-foot motorhome. He is rescued by a bunch of hard-boiled rural types, with whom he spends the next few days eating frogs and smoking pot. So far, so gonzo.

Then the confession slips out: “My problem is not that I dream I’m in hell . . . It’s that I love Jesus Christ. ‘The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.’ He was the most beautiful dude.” The archaism latchet is undoubtedly part of the appeal – linguistic richness of all kinds is an abiding preoccupation – yet it is hard to think of any other writer on either side of the Atlantic who could make a statement of such sincere devotion, never mind sound cool – Cat Stevens cool, anyhow – while he does it.

The desire to break out of the confining jacket of irony is part of a trend in recent American journalism, spearheaded in different ways by the magazines n+1and the Believer. At its worst, it signifies a retreat into whimsy and naivety. There is little of that here. Sullivan’s bonhomie, his likeable liking, forms the surface trapping of a grander project: a desire to contextualise modern American culture and social practices within the long parade of history. So we have the following extraordinary trill of praise, directed at Axl Rose’s dancing. “What Axl does is lovely, I’m sorry. If I could, I would be doing that as I walk to the store. I would wake up and dance every morning like William Byrd of Westover, and that would be my dance.”

I’m willing to bet that this is the only time William Byrd, the founder of Richmond, Virginia, and Axl Rose have coexisted in a sentence. The same long range is on display in an astonishingly tender and redeeming account of Michael Jackson, which begins by introducing the Alabama slave Prince Screws, Jackson’s great-great-grandfather whom the pop star honoured when naming his firstborn.

Some of the ghosts unearthed here are hard to dispel. In “Unnamed Caves”, Sullivan describes crawling beneath Tennessee through karst caves decorated with thousands of years of Native American art: woodpeckers, warrior eagles, a crown mace. Later, he seeks out the local people who have been excavating illegally, and who are themselves haunted by the caves’ enigmatic contents.

This urge towards recovery recurs in “Unknown Bards”, an essay that circles around a scene from Sullivan’s past. Once, while working as a magazine fact-checker, he spent a night driving around Oxford, Mississippi, trying to decipher a single word in a song called “Last Kind Word Blues”. The process of retrieval – he gets it in the end – is about the most thrilling thing I’ve read all year.

There are bum notes, naturally – a stoner’s trip to Disneyland drags and a presumably tongue-in-cheek account of animal attacks on human beings is bafflingly bizarre. On the whole, though, this is electric fare: a song of praise to the body of America, from someone who dwells right there.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £8.99). Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America is published by Vintage, £9.99


This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture