Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Pending Vegan

Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour
The central character of Jonathan Lethem’s recent short story, “Pending Vegan,” (The New Yorker, 4/7/14) has just gone off Celexa. Paul Espeseth’s psychiatrist Irving Renker has warned him that “in withdrawal from Celexa some patients have described a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edges of the everyday world.” But, it’s not so much corruption as self-contradiction that plagues Espeseth who had named himself “Pending Vegan” even before he went off his anti-depressant. The name is in response to his reading of a library book which prophesied “the world’s collapse into unsustainablility under the weight of its human population.” However, it’s not only the contradiction between things like “animal-love” and “the pleasures meat-eating” that plagues Espeseth aka Pending Vegan, he feels almost honor bound to educate his daughters Chloe and Deirdre in the perception of paradoxes, contradictions, aporias and “cognitive dissonances” amongst them the fact that  “Mommy and Daddy fought but loved each other” and “that human beings were miraculous and shyness ought to be overcome, yet also that they should violently distrust the too eager stranger as a probably monster.” Restoration comedy named characters after their personality traits (Horner, Wishfort, Flutter are central characters in classics like The Country Wife, The Way of  the World and Man of Mode) and the fact Lethem has a central character named Pending Vegan wandering around the campus of SeaWorld (which has in reality been the subject of a CNN expose, Blackfish ) is a piece of caricature worthy of Wycherley, Congreve or Etherege. Yet it's instructive at the same time. What better metaphor for the state of our civilization than to have a patient, with an aversion to animal cruelty withdrawing from his anti-depressant at SeaWorld and in the process ruminating on the education of his four-year-old twins? In "Pending Vegan”  Lethem is producing a comic version of Rousseau’s Emile: or On Education to accommodate the ambivalent nature of 21st century man. And what better name for our fecklessly ambivalent protagonist than that of the titular hero, Pending Vegan?

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