Every novel has a story.
Not the story the book tells, the story of how the novel came about.
The story of “united states” began some months before the 9/11 attacks on New York City. I’d telephoned a particular cable corporation whose electronic customer service menu had already had me on hold for 45 minutes. “Please, please,” I begged the void at last. “Give me a person. Give me a human. Oh, please, please, not another referral, not another menu…I only want to pay my overdue bill.”
Well, you know what happened.
These days, who hasn’t been Kafkaed by an inhuman response system pretending to be at our service without being anything of the kind? It was then, in angry despair, a thought flashed: What if big corporations like this all arranged one day to do whatever they wanted? No government oversight. No regulation. No public accountability. What if they controlled the police, the courts, the prisons, the news media? What if by the near-future year of, say, 2038, they had become virtual monopolies entirely above the law? You know, like a cable television company? What might America be like then?
Every writer, I suspect, has launched a book plot from a “what-if” platform like this at one time or another.:
—“Gatsby”— What if my neighbor was a mysterious, handsome celebrity who throws lavish parties for New York City elites but is actually a low-life grifter in cahoots with bootleggers and thugs?
—“Animal Farm”—What if the animals were in charge?
—“Lord of the Flies”—What if children were marooned on an island and devolved into savages?
One thing leads to another with crazy ideas like these. Before I knew it, I was imagining a mounted Horse Brigade executing a drama critic in New York’s Central Park for having written the truth about a play—harsh criticism over which the playwright had killed himself, the critic’s execution fair warning to all who might be tempted in the future to criticize anything, even bad plays.
Then, I imagined, could this be the first signs of a nascent corporate oligarchy surreptitiously seizing control of America’s greatest metropolis?
Could a novel be there?
All this prompted by an indifferent corporation’s electronic Help Menu refusing to answer my most basic human plea—to be heard.