Randomness and revelation

Zookeepers, eunuch Marines, flying explorers, and the lady formerly known as Huck Finn populate the pages of A Fictional History
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lit@sfbg.com REVIEW If fiction is truth masquerading as lies and the ever-popular memoir is tall tales packaged as transcendent fact, history is the place where dominant culture markets itself and covers the tracks. In recent times, historians like Howard Zinn and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have shifted the focus to tell the stories of marginalized, oppressed, dissident, and defiant peoples often erased from the record, but there’s still a lot of catching up to do. Perhaps it's time to employ additional tactics, as coeditors T Cooper and Adam Mansbach have in A Fictional History of the United States (with Huge Chunks Missing). The anthology of stories progresses like a typical history textbook (in chronological order, that is), yet its goal is not to give us the facts but rather to widen the cracks in the official story until it breaks open. Some of the strongest pieces in A Fictional History are the most preposterous. In Ron Kovic's "The Recruiters," it’s 1968 and two Marines arrive at a high school auditorium, climb onstage, and start singing a song: "Oh, if you lose your penis in a war/ And you can't make love with sexy girls no more/ Then don't blame it on the old Marine Corps." It turns out these Marines did indeed lose their penises in Vietnam, not on the battlefield but in a pool game, playing against a man who wielded a machete in place of a cue. Confused? "We made a bet," the Marines declare. "It was a COMMITMENT." A more over-the-top indictment of US military arrogance, masculinity, and the myopia of team loyalty could hardly be squeezed into the six pages this story occupies. Alexander Chee's "Wampeshau" describes Chinese settlements of explorers and concubines in the area occupied by the Narragansett Indians nearly 300 years before the founding of the United States: "To be an explorer is to practice the art of getting lost." But these settlers also practice the art of flying. That's right, "the secret to it ... is that even the wind will help you if you agree not to linger." This is certainly a refined band of travelers, and in their observations about the newly arrived British settlers destined to replace them lies a prescient warning: "They are like the opposite of ghosts, so alive it has made them numb." Sarah Schulman's "The Courage to Love" brings us inside the psychoanalytic method, seen through the eyes of Anna Fuchs, a German Jewish refugee psychiatrist in post–World War II New York who once "waltzed with Jung and made Freud jealous." As Anna conducts a final supervision session for one of her students, their spinning conversation (and Anna's interior wanderings) manages to take on the Nazi Holocaust, Jewish assimilation, and parental violence while foreshadowing current Israeli military aggression. A contentious session explodes into a debate about the nascent medicalization of psychiatry — a conversation that’s even more relevant in our own era, when the right prescription is seen as the answer to even the most complicated emotional traumas. Not all of the pieces in the book are quite so rigorous. The opening story, "The Discovery of America," by Paul La Farge, wallows in a self-satisfied joy over all things random, which could be an interesting challenge to the notion of "discovery" if it weren't for phrases like "America remains to be discovered." "The New Century," Neal Pollack's take on media whores and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, lacks any insight beyond the obvious (the media are only interested in sensation these days, etc.). More successfully, in a humorous take on racism and white guilt, the Civil War and drag, Kate Bornstein recounts the tale of Sassy Sarah, formerly known as Huckleberry Finn, a slender girl working the brothels of New Orleans under Union occupation. Coeditor Mansbach describes a 1905 zookeeper's friendship with an imprisoned African man exhibited with the apes in a story whose final line is perhaps the most scathing indictment of colonialism in the whole book.

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