Eugene Linden
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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.

The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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Wall Street is the undertaker beetle of statistics: the markets voraciously consume, digest and then forget the numbers churned out by the keepers of vital economic statistics each week. Every now and then, however, a statistic pops up that gives pause to this number munching machine because the number points to deep and scary forces gathering beneath the surface. That happened Jan. 9, when the U.S. Labor Department announced that non-farm payrolls only increased by 1,000 jobs in Dec. despite robust economic growth, and it was underscored March 5, when the Feb. payroll number came in at 21,000, a small fraction of the 130,000 new jobs predicted by economists and the 300,000 estimated by the White House. After three months of anemic numbers amid a supposedly robust recovery, even the most Panglossian cheerleaders recognize that consumers canít spend if they donít have jobs. Much has been written about outsourcing, but the real threat of these stunning numbers is that they may set in motion a cascade of events that could become seriously destabilizing in the coming years. A jobless recovery that enriches shareholders, but bypasses Americaís debt-burdened employed will exacerbate the wealth gap between rich and poor. This gap was perceived as a problem at the end of World War II, and despite more than 50 years of unprecedented global economic expansion it has only widened, both in the U.S. and in the developing world. In my 1998 book, The Future in Plain Sight, I made the wage gap one of my clues to future instability because the gap is written in the DNA of the way we now do business, and because it is unsustainable. The few can only hold onto their gains with the consent of the many, and at some point those not sharing in those gains will realize that a significant portion the enormous wealth created for the fortunate few in recent years has come out of their future prospects. Back in 1997, I expected that this realization to take a long time to gain traction with workers, but a few more months of payroll numbers such as those released last week, and this ďahaĒ moment might arrive within a year. Thatís when trouble will really begin. The labor department figures have prompted a flood of explanations. Some caution that the payroll number may miss significant numbers of self-employed, while different pundits have mentioned technologically driven efficiency improvements, cautious businesses that make people work harder rather than hire as business improves, and the movement of jobs overseas. This last point is the real problem Any U.S. business can now draw on an unlimited pool of cheap skilled labor for nearly any business need that does not involve face-to-face encounters. This not only fosters recoveries without jobs, it also puts a cap on wage demands by those lucky enough to still hold a job. The executives making decisions to outsource to low wage employees have their own problems. The digital connections that gives Amalgamated Cup access to cheap programmers in Bangalore also gives competitors in China and elsewhere access to Amalgamated Cupís markets at home. If a networked global economy has put a cap on wages, it has also put a cap on the prices a business can charge for their goods. Thanks to the Internet everything and everyone is in danger of becoming a commodity. Both businesses and labor would like to set up barriers to low-priced competitors, but there really is no easy way out of this self-destructive system. If the gap continues to widen and the economy turns down, there will be an ever -growing constituency for protectionist measures and other restraints that could lead us into a disastrous spiral of trade wars. On the other hand, any measures such as government guarantees, safety nets, or other programs offered by politicians trying to capitalize on class resentments would spook the deficit-conscious bond markets, and could easily cause a collapse of the dollar. Because of U.S. dependence on trade and because trillions of dollars in dollar-denominated assets are held overseas, U.S. economic policy is now hostage to the opinions of foreigners, our military might notwithstanding. Is there a solution? Maybe. A massive public works project that did not expand the deficit would help; something like a massive clean energy program or nationwide high-speed rail network financed by new taxes on pollution and fossil fuels. A more progressive tax system would help as well. Both seem inconceivable since the Bush administration wants to spend public works dollars on Mars not earth, and Congress that has just enacted tax breaks that exacerbate the wealth gap. Still, if this jobless recovery stalls, and populist resentments find a voice, I suspect that the few might give up a bit to the many in order to hold onto the rest. The South African tycoon Harry Oppenheimer once remarked, ďIf they donít eat, we canít sleep.Ē He was talking about racial apartheid, but the remark might well apply to economic apartheid as well.

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]


The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.

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