DAMIEN OBER’S DBFDA (DOCTOR BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S DREAM AMERICA), reviewed by David Vichnar
Following a weird e-shorthand transcription (with @’s all over the place, “cre8d” for “created,” or “=” for “equal”) of the Jeffersonian all-are-created-equal maxim, is a list of all the signatories of The Declaration of Independence, each name accompanied by a date, and underneath that: “Fifty-six men signed The Declaration of Independence. This is the story of their deaths.” Immediately after the so-called “immortal declaration” comes the 56-fold death of its declarers that forms the backbone of the narrative of Damien Ober’s Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, hot off the press with Equus (2014).
To base a book-length narrative solely on fifty-six death scenes, spanning over half a century, has the obvious advantage of keeping up a fast-paced pull: their protagonists keep changing, their action-oriented narrative can do without lengthy descriptive passages or the baggage of deep psychology, their “death-drive” provides them with both natural suspense and a clear, attractive denouement.
All this, however, provided one can solve the inherent difficulty of this structuring: how does one write fifty-six times about “the same,” without repeating oneself, without giving free rein to cozy shorthand or comfy formula, producing yet another Oulipian tema-con-variazioni exercise, whose algorithm might wind up being more interesting than the results? Damien Ober’s Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America keeps the best and forgets about the rest, managing to take full stock of the advantages of its procedural narrative while steering clear of its formidable risks. How does Ober manage that?
Firstly, by sheer gift of storytelling, fashioning each of the signatories (and their deaths) with some unique signature. Let’s take just the first few. John Morton dies lyrically, at his computer:
The glow of the laptop touches only the ceiling directly above, and only slightly, the most vague hint of a soft spot in the shell of this realm – a path out, maybe. (5)
Button Gwinnett dies mock-heroically, after losing a duel to Lachlan McIntosh, shouting out loud the name of his vanquisher: “One last memory of Button Gwinnett,” he mumbles. “The sound of his name in my voice… echoing forever” (8). The only tangible effect of this being, that he startles the nurse into dropping and smashing his porcelain chamber pot. Philip Livingston, so frail he’s wheeled around in a cart, simply vanishes into thin air (or into wi-fi signal?):
M’Kean turns back to the cart containing Philip Livingston, but there is no Philip Livingston. Instead of a man filled with wa- ter, there is only the water vacated, a dark pool spread out in blob around the cart, reflects Rush and M’Kean’s faces back at them looking down. (14)
John Hart dies in the midst of his gathered family, “a pain in his lower chest like having the wind knocked out […,] a taste like sand in his mouth”:
He manages to whisper, “Stick to the plan.” But he’s not sure who’s still there to hear him. The men who survive this, he thinks, they will be gods. And I’ll be one of the ones who died in the very first days. (17)
And so on. Still, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America also succeeds as a novel in that it’s more than the sum of its 56 charming vignettes. The first unifying component is Ober’s style. Throughout, Ober serves a tasty cocktail blending original poetic lyricism (as when the mortal throes throw George Ross “into fits of abstract breakdancing on the floor” ) with absurd dialogue (“’Blind?’ Hopkins considers. ‘How’s that working out for him?’ A twin shrugs. Then the other. ‘Well, he can’t see.’” ), the occasional off-beat metaphor (“King George can slice through the colonies… like a red-hot lance up a well-worn whore.” ) with some hilarious profanity (“His wife smiled. ‘But, Thomas, do you know what sucked the biggest dick ever?’He looked at her blankly. ‘Martha Washington.’ ) and trivial, yet irresistible, punning, as in: “Most sites haven’t changed since the outbreak broke out. Pictures of the first dead ghost every abandoned splash page, breaking news left there breaking” (18). This style makes for a highly enjoyable, constantly surprising and, for lack of a less mindless label, thought-provoking read.
Also, Ober cleverly runs a few overarching or underlying narratives than run across and through the death-scenes. The customary review-genre reduction of the book to plot-level could look as follows.
Before John Morton becomes the first signatory to sign off, he uploads the Articles of the Confederation onto the Cloud, a pan-American computer network, becoming “the first man to type the new nation’s name into the Internet” (12). Make no mistake. The date still is April 1, 1777, and the setting is true to fact: people ride on horseback, live in mansions and when ailing, subject themselves to the cutting-edge medical treatment: bloodletting and leeches. And yet, at the same time, the Internet is not only America’s daily bread (the Revolution has its official fan page, “scoring 1,256 likes in the first hour alone”), it is already getting stale, worm-infested, and spawning a virus, some autonomous replicating selfware: The Death, “that faint tightening in the lower gut, something [George Ross] would have dismissed as gas before the outbreak” (18).
This faint tightening is caused by crystals growing in the stomach, somehow induced by exposure to Internet waves, and is 100% deadly: “Maybe the wi-fi signal or the refresh rate,” muses Doc Barlett, the crystal-discoverer, “is just a trigger for something that’s been waiting eons to happen” (43). This Death epidemic ends up wiping out sixty-five percent of the population (and claiming the lives of the first dozen or so signatories) before a panacea is finally discovered, and the entire nation goes offline. Joseph Hewes, its sixth victim, thinks of The Death as “something living […] a nightmare beast loose in the Cloud, reaching down to snatch up users, suck their souls right off the planet” (24), and he hits the nail on the head. The storm having blown over, the nation goes online again, this time into the “Newnet” – but only after contact with alien civilisation, the so-called “Off-Worlders,” whose flying saucers become steady part of the young nation’s landscape. In exchange for the continent’s supply of oil, the Off-Worlders offer the US gold and the cure for The Death (they also clear away all the crystals and clean up the infested corpses).
This contract smacks of the devil – and indeed, the Off-Worlders end up taking away way more than the contract stipulated. The increasingly pressing question becomes (asks Frank Lewis), “How long before Americans are the Off-Worlders, trolling the galaxy for the next littlest piece of room to expand into?” (164) Only much later, evidence suggests that, rather Matrix-like, all might be part of a diabolical plot:
the President… of the United States has been growing crystals inside cloned human stomachs and engaging in black market trade with alien invaders in order to secure technology to implant ten million computer programs into human bodies. (168)
And accordingly—mind you, we’re not in Soviet Russia—the initially liberating project of the Newnet turns into its very opposite: “Humans don’t run Newnet anymore. Newnet runs the humans” (197). Parallel with this mass-enslavement runs the project of liberation the eponymous Dream America, a social networking platform designed to fulfil the American dream of self-reliance and individual independence. After all, “Who needs a Congress, or a President for that matter, when each citizen can log on and represent himself?” (73)
The logic behind this is as impeccable as hilarious: If humans can die of computer viruses, why shouldn’t they live on as their online social profiles or avatars? Launched by Francis Hopkinson, The Dream becomes not only “the best chance to ensure the perpetual political involvement of the people” (84), but also a platform for the signatories—beginning with Hopkinson himself and his follower John Hancock—to exist posthumously, by way of their online avatars. From there, Hopkinson keeps the body- and liberty-snatching enterprise (led by Jefferson, M’Kean & Co.) in check, trying, and possibly managing, to “retake America, from the Dream side out” (221).
Ober spins this rather colourful yarn (also featuring the “Vampire Millipus,” assassin twins, thinking drones, an Indian Chief in contact with space aliens, and many other freakshows) beyond yet another what-if-dinosaurs-had-cellphones imagination exercise. As so often with the alternative-history genre, his story asks about the present more than the past: how far has America gone (or indeed strayed) from the times of its Founding Fathers, who still could wonder whether to speak of the States as a “them” or an “it” and could posit all men as being equal without some of them being more equal than others?
The Internet and electronic media serve as the vehicle of Ober’s underlying metaphor – just as with them, the American dream of personal freedom and social equality can easily turn into a nightmare of the opposite. Starting with the Cloud and the Dream where everyone can represent themselves, we end up in 3net, where everyone can be anyone else, “slip into other people’s lives” (243), where everyone can be represented by someone else. Sounds familiar?
One ends up wondering, together with Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally, whether perhaps the Off-Worlders (whom Jefferson heroically defeats in an epic battle of evermore) didn’t have to take over the Earth by force, for they may have already done so: “Millipus, The Death, the Cloud all falling in. Maybe those are its weapons and we down here just too stupid to see they giving us whipping after whipping” (255) – for “Off-Worlders” read corporate capitalism, war against terror, freedom fries, what have you.
Those are all relevant questions and it is to his credit that Ober manages to raise and address them while eschewing a political allegory through which to preachify his political views. The issues are dealt with in and through his stories – not fictionalised thought, but rather thinking through fiction. To be sure, Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is no political tract or history lesson or moralist dystopia or media analysis; or, rather, it is all of these and more – it is fiction writing at its best.
And what remains with this particular reader most vividly, after the excitement of the storyline and the provocation of the thinking have subsided, is the simple poignancy of the fifty-six death-scenes, all the more moving for their simplicity and matter-of-factness. As when William Williams thinks, “It was good, to spend a little time in this world, I guess” (205). It’s so good, to spend a little time in the world of this book. I’m sure.