Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Sophia Tonemai, the heroine of A.P. Schmitt’s remarkable debut novel
“Eudemonia,” is one of the smartest, strangest -- and in some ways
scariest --protagonists I’ve come across in a long while. A young
Brazilian journalist based in the United States of Hysterica, Sophia
is at once viciously intelligent, deeply compassionate, and alarmingly
cold-blooded. As a reporter, Sophia has witnessed the ugly crimes
committed by the powerful, and she is tortured by the fact that
corporate crooks and warmongering politicians always get away with
their misdeeds. So she becomes obsessed with the idea of punishing
them. Sophia wrestles with an ultimate moral question: Is an
individual justified in meting out punishment to evildoers? She’s the
highest-IQ vigilante in history – Hamlet with a silencer.
This premise might sound unpromisingly abstract, but Schmitt’s
stiletto-sharp dialogue, dazzling range of high and low cultural
references and laugh-out-loud satiric wordplay (“Faecesbook,” “Duck
Chainy”, “Goldman Sucks”) make her protagonist’s quest for moral truth
feel as much like a killer episode of “The Daily Show” as a Socratic
dialogue. (Example: “When it comes to death and killing I always felt
very natural about it, even as a child,” Sophia writes. “For a long
time I thought ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was a statement unfairly singling
out this guy, Thou, and I just wanted to know who did Thou kill to
deserve the mention. I can’t lie about it: I looked up to Thou.”) And
Schmitt captures Sophia's softer side, too, in her relationships with
two memorably-drawn friends.
There is a lot of great stuff in Eudemonia, and it is completely
original. Schmitt’s command of English is alarmingly precise, and she
is an amazingly talented writer and thinker. I have almost never come
across a writer both as smart and as funny as she is and have never
read anything quite like it. Eudemonia is an amazingly original piece
The way the moral conundrum is ultimately resolved, or not resolved,
may disturb some readers. But Sophia is such an original character,
and this sui generis philosophical/political thriller is so
thought-provoking, that you don’t mind. Brain candy this tasty is rare.
-- Gary Kamiya, co-founder of Salon.com
Thursday, February 2, 2012
This is an excerpt from Eudemonia. Any numerically accurate coincidence is just you making inferences.
While she is getting dressed for her first yoga experience, Sophia hears her phone ring. It’s her friend at the FBI.
“You may want to tone down the sweatshop entry on your blog,” he says, even before hello.
“You read it?” she asks with surprise. Sophia waits two seconds for the criticism, or the praise, but he hasn’t called for either.
“Your timing is off, buddy. Or very on, I don’t know. This is exclusive to your ears, you only, we have a gag order on this,” he pauses, waiting for her to promise silence. She does.
“The CEO you were bashing has been kidnapped.”
“That’s what we’re hoping for at this point. There has been no sign of the man for weeks now. The family got no message, no ransom request, nothing.”
“How long has it been?”
“We don’t know for sure. His disappearance was reported several weeks after his last communication. His personal assistant received a postcard from the Seychelles with a stamp from Victoria’s post-office, signed by her boss, in his own handwriting. But we found no record of him being there, not a single hotel registration, no flight logs with him arriving or leaving the island.”
“What’s on the postcard?”
“Just a short note telling his assistant he had changed his plans, and asking her to cancel appointments for the next two weeks. We now think the card was sent to waste our time, to delay the search. But it’s written by him, that we know for sure.”
“That’s all? Just cancelling his appointments?”
“I never saw the card, but that’s about it. There was also some private joke between them, something like ‘just did it’ and beside it a curvy tick made into a smiley.”
“Right. Just do’em is more like it. The son-of-a-bitch was probably eaten by his sweatshop workers.”
“I suggest you go easy on him, for your own sake” he says gravely. “I think the man’s soon to become a hero. Or a martyr.”
Imagine you work 12 hours a day standing up, sewing shoes, inhaling toxic fumes, part of your brain focused on avoiding an accident that may chop your finger off, the other part castigating you for needing to go to the toilet only four hours into your day, eight more to go and one of your two chances to pee already used up. Your urinary infection is kicking in, your sight is damaged, your lungs have a deadline, you have no health insurance. But what is really killing you is that you only see your children once a year, if the factory allows you the annual leave. You’ve been saving on the daily rice, but the margin is so meagre it still does not pay for your kid’s school books – he too will have to start working, a childhood many years shorter, another member of a whole generation of workers who will beget another generation born for that same end. After 12 hours of mind-numbing repetition your day is over, a two-dollar nightmare from which you will only sleep when you finally reach death. You go to a crammed dormitory to indulge in a bad imitation of rest, hoping your mind will grant you in that abbreviated peace some of what you’ve been deprived of in this long life. But there’s little to help in your self-delusion. Even music, that most immaterial of goods, has become the stuff of dreams – destitute of almost everything, you have no extra money for your radio batteries. And you go to sleep with the certainty – no, with the hope, and the dread – that you will be doing that same thing the next day, and the day after, and every six or seven days of the week, and every week of the month, and every month of the year, and every year till your experience is finally accumulated into nothing – when you reach enough seniority to earn a better pay, the factory will replace you with another underage, cheap human.
And you will live a year, another year, many years like that, tormented and afraid, a life empty of comfort, bereft of happiness, void of even the simple, free pleasures that nature promises everyone at birth, a life where fear leaves no room for sunsets and full moons, an existence whose purpose you will fulfil without ever understanding what it is.
I’ll tell you what it is.
It’s to keep Knife’s 5-billion dollar net worth growing, to keep Tiger fucking, and to make sure the price of your labour is as low as the one-billion dollar in marketing is high, so it can fool those in the Realm of the Unthinking into believing they own a 100-dollar share of that fortune around their feet.
But you’re lucky you cannot read English. It saves you from learning of the sick solution donated by Pill Knife: your life could be much better if you would only “manage your money well.”
That’s it, you unlucky nothing, you’re probably eating too much rice.
Yes, Sophia thinks, her tone is just about right.
Her numbers need updating, and she must add the other manufacturers. But she is not supposed to be dealing with this type of thing yet. She reluctantly glances at the numbers but there’s no point avoiding it, she knows them all by heart.
Nife’s annual marketing budget often surpasses 1.5 billion dollars. They call that budget item ‘demand creation.’ Clever.
The average salary of Nife shoe-makers is around 60 dollars a month, but no one knows for certain. Nife refuses to disclose the wages. In Vietnam, Nife factory workers get $40 a month; in Cambodia they get $30.
Nife’s belated Code of Conduct was hailed with fanfare. The gullible media was relieved to have something good to say, they want a chunk of that damn ad budget.
But the Code is not mandatory. It’s not even a clause in Nife’s contract with suppliers. It just recommends stuff. Like a limit of 60 hours of work per week – wink wink. It also recommends 14 as the minimum working age, but don’t worry, Nife won’t be checking.
And things are done in such a cunning way that workers must actually hope conditions and salaries do not get better, because if they do, Nife just moves out. It’s nothing personal, you see, it’s just that Nife needs to find a poorer place where the minimum salary is lower. Nife is actually shaping government policy. It ended up inspiring whole countries and dictatorships to keep their salaries as low as possible, or else, no Nife factory for you. Nife’s executive explained it clearly: any increase in costs will make the plant ‘price itself out of the market.’
Nife’s business strategy: scour the Earth for people willing to eat less, work more, people who truly have nothing, so the almost-nothing Nife offers is good enough.