Reviewed by Victor Acquista for Tikkun Daily
A good place to start making our world a better place is to identify current problems and then strategize on how to solve those problems. What about when the problems themselves are hidden, or entangled in a complex web of truth and falsehood and conflicting ideologies? What we often categorize as “culture wars” has roots in the evolution of consciousness and how individuals and groups at different levels of consciousness coexist. Socially conscious fiction helps to shine light upon social ills. In this sense, it helps to raise awareness.
In his novel, A Mound Over Hell, Gary Morgenstein has given us much to think about regarding the current state of modern society. Although the story is set in the future, today’s social problems are on full display. Baseball seems an unlikely place to uncover and expose societal conflict. Yet, Morgenstein reveals it to be the perfect construct for digging deep into the underbelly of a future America where baseball is on the brink of extinction. The seeds of past conflict often blossom into future turmoil. His novel is a far cry from A Field of Dreams.
In these times when people exploit half-truths, fake news, and alternate facts, the book itself is timely. The narrative blends a combination of baseball truths and fabrications wedded together, takes readers through a somewhat unexpected trajectory, and reframes historical elements to uncover an uncomfortable present. Surprise! Not all is what citizens have been led to believe. Lies clearly have the upper hand in this marital union. Despite this foundation of falsehood, the citizens live in a zeitgeist of syrupy contentment.
The protagonist, Puppy Nedick, is a baseball historian who reports on the anticipated last season of the sport set in a dystopian future. One could characterize baseball as a quintessential American iconic symbol that speaks to who we are as a nation and as a culture. Extrapolating many current cultural themes and social issues and projecting these forward on an inevitable collision course gives the thoughtful reader pause to think about these issues. Myths and history aside, longstanding hatred and distrust is about to reemerge as Puppy finds himself caught in national and international conflict. Something is rotten in Denmark and Puppy unwittingly becomes a puppet under the auspices of playing ball, but this is not an innocent game.
After America loses a war between the Islamic East and the Christian West, a cultural battle that extends back centuries, baseball is relegated to an afterthought, an association with an America that no longer exists. What does exist is a bit scary. Old fashioned family values are on full display, promulgated by Grandma and an extended governing family. Grandma is not the typical Big Brother of Orwellian ilk, but the social arrangement is no less totalitarian, masquerading under an apple-pie veneer of love and holographic bucolic images of beauty. But conservative family values gone wild coexist with an equally crazed progressive culture of equality, robots with rights, and meaningless work as defining ones’ social value. Ouch! On this canvas, the author paints a somewhat grim picture. The mawkish society Grandma has helped to create works, but only at a superficial level. There is nothing saccharine underneath. Hatred and uncompromising ideology cannot be held in abeyance. Power, control, and hidden agendas are in play. Who wins? Who loses? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.
Any dystopian fiction raises social issues, but this novel is overflowing in bold and subtle criticism of the world as we know it, of American ideals and its foundational identity. As Wikipedia inform us: Adystopia (from the Greek δυσ- “bad” and τόπος “place”… is a community or society that is undesirable or frightening.It is translated as “not-good place”…
Calling attention to social issues is a mainstay of literature. Name any particular social ill and there are probably dozens of books exploring the issue in order to raise awareness. Examples abound but here are a few:
The horror of war – Johnny Got Your Gun
Racial prejudice – To Kill a Mockingbird
Government control, propaganda – 1984
Exploitation of immigrants – The Jungle
Class warfare – Les Miserables
Dystopian futures are commonly explored in science fiction. George Orwell’s 1984 about totalitarianism is a classic. Aldous Huxley’s genetically engineered Brave New World is another. Robert Heinlein, the dean of science fiction, incorporated social themes into many of his novels. What distinguishes Morgenstein’s work is the breadth and scope of his exposé and the ease with which he incorporates a cornucopia of societal observations into a coherent plot line. The bar is high for outstanding dystopian literature. A Mound Over Hell is comfortably over that bar. At times, the author pokes fun and jests with multiple cultural themes, while at other times, he mocks and skewers modern values and society. Nothing is spared–government, politics, the dignity of work, cell phones, sexuality, marriage, artificial intelligence, the military, sports, religion – they all are under scrutiny and satirized in a manner that sometimes represents gentle parody and sometimes represents outright blasphemy. The author certainly has the pulse of modern times and he does not shy in shining light into dark places; albeit, tempered by amusement.
There is something masterful and downright elegant when a novelist can navigate the cultural currents, back currents, and eddies that flow simultaneously in modern society. Morgenstein blends astute insights and biting satire while weaving a tale that is guaranteed to entertain, to engage the reader in thought-provoking exposition, and to offend. Yes, you read that last bit correctly. As the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius reminds us, “quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum” (what is food for one man may bebitterpoison to others). There is plenty of both in this book, regardless of a reader’s beliefs, values, creed, or political inclinations. Caveat emptor—whether intended by the author or not, many readers will be offended by this exposé. If you are willing to take that risk, you will be richly rewarded. You will appreciate how dystopian darkness and humor can harmoniously coexist. Understand the artistic genius behind making a reader look in the mirror of cultural values, warts and blemishes on full display, and still bring a smile to their face. If we lose the ability to poke fun at ourselves, the dystopian future will have arrived.