Hurricanes and Pink Flamingos
Not about cocktails, but maybe it should be.
My favourite author is the American pulp novelist John D MacDonald.
Best known for his Travis McGee mysteries ('murder -> brooding -> sexytimes -> violence -> further brooding' repeat x 21 novels), JDM was an entertaining character in his own right. He was prolific, he was highly opinionated, and he didn't shy away from contemporary themes and conflicts.
In fact, one of the things that's always struck me about him is his clear desire to use fiction as a medium for change. In the introduction to The End of the Tiger, he talks about re-editing his stories for the collection- updating the background and context so that they were relevant to modern readers. He didn't want people distracted from the point of his story by out-moded cultural cues (e.g. the price of a phone call; or in 2018, the existence of landlines, I suppose). It is the rare, clear-cut case of authorial intent: JDM wasn't about vibe, he was about impact.
I just finished a comforting reread of one of JDM's longest novels: Condominium (1977). This is 'disaster fiction', straight from the golden age of the genre - written off the back of The Glass Inferno, The Andromeda Strain, The Tower, Airport. Books about bad things happening.
Disaster fiction is more than just schadenfreude: is the literature of systems. It uses fiction to introduce and examine how things work - including a frank appraisal of the barriers and challenges to working successfully. And then it breaks that system apart. Disaster fiction, like horror fiction, is generally crammed full of rapidly-deployed pen-portraits of characters. A good author can make the people empathetic, and therefore the disaster feels disastrous. A hack relies on making it gleeful and messy instead. But people qua people aren't really the purpose of the thing: they're merely in there as case studies; anecdotal padding to help the reader comprehend the scale of the problem. No one reads disaster fiction for the interpersonal drama.
With all that - in Condominium, JDM departs from the model, and makes the book much, much more about people. At least, superficially so.
The 'disaster', Hurricane Ella, does not even deign to appear until very, very late in the book. In most disaster fiction, the disaster serves as the de facto protagonist - seeded early and followed closely throughout. But the bulk of Condominium's 500-ish pages has absolutely nothing to do with hurricanes. It is about irrelevant minutiae: land-development schemes, spiralling Medicare costs, alcoholism, struggling marriages, local politics...
A contemporary review from the New York Times found the book's meandering lack of focus to be puzzling:
Although Condominium purports to be fiction, its apparent intention isn't so much to explore character, plot or theme as it is to compile every conceivable fact about condominiums—how property is assessed and purchased, public officials are bribed; ecological corners are cut, deals are financed, construction standards are ignored and units are merchandized, then managed or mismanaged... [MacDonald] seems to have lost sight of what he learned from the detective genre—economy, taut structure and pace.
This isn't unfair. JDM spends more words on detailing the ins-and-outs of a resident's association meeting than he does on the big-ass storm that's, theoretically, the whole point of the book.
The term 'black swan', as developed by Nassim Taleb, describes extreme outliers, and their disproportionate impact on history. The 'unknown unknowns' that take us all by surprise. Disaster fiction such as The Andromeda Strain touches on this area: a virus from, uh, Andromeda. Pretty hard to account for that.
Condominium illustrates what Frank Hoffman from the Center for Strategic Research calls a 'pink flamingo':
[A] predictable event that is ignored due to cognitive biases of a senior leader or a group of leaders trapped by powerful institutional forces. These are the cases which are “known knowns,” often brightly lit, but remaining studiously ignored by policymakers.
The Meg is a black swan - no one expects a prehistoric shark. Deep Blue Sea is a pink flamingo. The inevitable conclusion of making hyper-intelligent sharks is that you're going to get some people well and truly et.
Condominium is the saga of a pink flamingo. This is why the hurricane arrives late at the book, and why he spends so much time wading through unrelated, irrelevant 'kitchen sink' details. The 'disaster' isn't the hurricane itself, the disaster is the inevitability of the hurricane, and the corresponding absence of preparation. Throughout Condominium, we see - not to mix the metaphors - people meticulously shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Lots and lots of people playing whack-a-mole with lots of superficial bugs in the book's 'system'. But throughout it, there's a hurricane-shaped hole in the conversation. JDM deftly illustrates our dangerous obsession with quick fixes and polishes, and our cowardice when it comes to tackling what actually matters.
Condominium is a very cheeky book: all the unnecessary, often Byzantine, distractions at the beginning are ultimately revealed to be just that: distractions. Everything they do is unimportant - because everyone is doing everything except the one thing they need to do.
Appropriately, when Ella does appear, she is sung in by a chorus of sheepish finger-pointing. The bankers, developers, journalists, politicians all point at one another and mumble: 'well, if there were something really wrong, they should have said something'. People so embedded within the system, that they can't see (if we're being generous) or face (if we're being honest) its fatal flaws.
To: Solve the problems that need solving
By: Challenging assumptions
Remember when Netflix was about getting DVDs in the mail? Three million people still do that. Holy cow. (My favourite part is that this quirky legacy still racks up over $50m in profits.) Really fascinating to think about who these audiences are (the AV Club posits 'rural with bad internet' or 'niche film buffs'), what they want, and how they might be better served.
Another counter-intuitive question: how do we keep plastic around longer? Not the stuff in the oceans, but the bits in museums. The article cites everything from acrylic paintings and fiberglass sculptures to the 'first artificial heart', 'the Apple I', and 'Ella Fitzgerald's LPs'.
"Even if Tesco added one charge point to a third of its reported 3,739 locations... that would expand the entire public charging network by around 8%" - little changes that make a big difference (and improve a brand's image), by Brands2Life's Sam Holl.