Masters of something

I was in Destin, Fla., last week with my wife’s family, mostly playing golf and hanging at the pool and occasionally slipping off to read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis. I ended up reading most of the book on the plane rides there and back, and, as suspected, it made for an ideal “vacay read.” I’ve been a Portishead since a friend turned me on to The Dog of the South a few years back, and so here I am: With Masters, I’ve now read all five of his novels (incl. Gringos twice).

Of course, Portis is gone now. His final novel came out in 1991, so it’s not like he was churning these things out super late in life. But over a few decades he managed to drop five all-timers, “going at least two for five in his attempts to write the great American novel,” Kaleb Horton wrote in a great remembrance last year. He was steady. and he had a knack for dialogue that I’ve been trying to find in my own work. This past spring, I wrote a short play that’s probably going to stay tucked in some lower-rung desk drawer, but which features some two-hander dialogue lifted in rhythm and disjointed weirdness from the master himself. At any rate, reading Portis’s stuff has been a great joy. Rereading promises the same.

Masters of Atlantis is a great lens on delusion. It’s a very American book, rooted mostly in the desperate times of the 1930s: times when cult-like intrigue and conspiratorial grifts sold nicely. If that sounds familiar, it is. Like the Gnomonistic viewpoints in the novel, history runs through cycles. (Or “turnings,” as in the Strauss-Howe generational theory, something that could stand in for Gnomonism, in a way.) Access to esoteric and exclusive knowledge is something we innately crave. We prefer at once to be both inside the mainstream, operating with the crowd, and to have some intimate intelligence that keeps us at a remove, coolly monitoring the known machinations of the world. In conspiracy and New Age MLM business, we find a distinct universe. We find a home.

But it’s the tug between the two impulses that marks our 21st-century anxiety. In Portis, and particularly in Masters, the loons are working well outside the boundaries, despite earnest attempts at press coverage. Back in 2021 America, the mass delusion is coming from inside the house. It’s a weird movement that runs to metamodernism, and I think it becomes hard to pinpoint without the structural world-building of fiction. We don’t like to scrutinize our delusions in America, because the attractive pull of the grand narrative (the #resistance, the viral video, the gamification of global finance, the militarization of police) is a certain gravity that affects everyone. There’s no inside to be outside of; there’s no escape hatch. It’s the internet of things.

I’m reading Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts right now, and I think it comes close to framing this problem in our current social media vernacular. The ironic detachment/attachment to various flavors of inside baseball conspiracy (pick your interests!) is something we’ll want to grasp in 21st-c. novels. Where Portis touched down on the fringes of a certain American tradition, there are new opportunities for writers incisive enough to tackle the ways we’ve reshaped ourselves in the internet (in, say, 300 pages) without coming out and hammering away on some mindless “take.” Oyler is getting there, I’d wager, and there will no doubt be more to read about the delusional touchstones of modern communication. We’re fooling ourselves, six ways to Sunday, and Portis would have understood as much.

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