“The problem with our generation,” a friend explained to me, “is that we haven’t had any big, cataclysmic wars. That’s why we haven’t written anything good. You can’t write anything good without a big, cataclysmic war.”
We had been talking about Post-War literature, the great apocalyptic novels born out of the absurdity of the Second World War, i.e Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, Gravity’s Rainbow, etc. As I saw it, my friend had a strong case – plenty of the greats either fought in big, cataclysmic wars, or at the least lived during one… I could list them out but I haven’t the space. Google it, I suppose.
But what have we got? By we I mean the millennials, of course. Sure, there’s all the ongoing business in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and so on. Although big in the sense that these throw-downs were expensive and killed a lot of civilians, they hardly qualify, in my mind at least, as cataclysmic.
Not to mention they are distant, remote. It’s hard to get worked up and weave poetry about some police action in a rocky desert. How much can really be said about a drone strike or roadside bomb? There is little inspiration, as far as I can tell, to be gleaned from listening to the talking heads harp about a Nigerian ambush or an embassy being overrun. Not at this level of modern desensitization. I’m over it. Boring.
I suppose most of us also watched the towers fall, which I’m sure sure millennial experts would describe as the defining moment of our generation, though it hardly compares to something like, I dunno, Dresden.
Anyway, I was thinking about what my friend had said, about good literature being a function of big, cataclysmic wars during my drive home from work. The introspection had me feeling conflicted and depressed. It was a delicate situation. On the one hand, our generation is long overdue for someone to write something good.
…of course, on the other hand, it seems a bit selfish to wish upon humanity a big, cataclysmic war simply because no one under thirty is producing any postmodern literature. To say the very least. Not to mention that by today’s standards of firepower a big, cataclysmic war could very easily mean the end of humanity, at which point there would no longer be any need for good, strange postwar literature. A Catch-22 if there ever was one.
I got home from work, and with nothing to do and certainly nothing good to write about, decided to go for a walk around my neighborhood, smoking cigarettes and feeling sorry for myself. Maybe, I thought, inspiration would hit, but probably not. Such is the cruel burden of living in a world of relative peace.
I live in a hip, up-and-coming neighborhood. Seven or so years ago I came here with a girl I was dating because she wanted to go to a Dairy Queen that sits along the street I now live on. Back then the neighborhood was unrecognizable – on the fringes, broken glass. It was not the sort of area you wanted to be lingering around after dark. We got our DQ Blizzards and then booked it out of there.
Today the neighborhood is a much newer, more expensive place. Massive sprawling apartment complexes guard every street corner, each one engaged in an ongoing arms race to offer the best and most bougie amenities to a rapidly growing, college educated working class that spends their time crawling the bars here whenever they aren’t at work hunched over a Bloomberg Terminal or Tableau expense report.
My apartment costs $1700 a month for a two bedroom and it is quite affordable so long as you have a roommate and are making a little more than double the minimum wage.
There is still the occasional murder here as well, maybe four or five a year, but thankfully those are factored into the cost of living.
As I crossed the street onto the main boulevard that runs through the neighborhood, a peculiar sight caught my eye. There was a man in ragged clothes sporting a thick beard and long Jesus-hair. He was dirty and holding a sign.
None of that was particularly peculiar. I see plenty dirty men fitting that exact description every day. It was the contents of the sign, however, that sparked my curiosity.
It read, in big, bold Sharpie lettering, THE WORLD HAS ENDED.
I was intrigued, and immediately figured this was the type of man worth smoking a cigarette with. I started making my way towards him, he noticed me, and our eyes met. His were tired and sad.
He looked defeated. People had been heckling him all day, throwing empty beer bottles at him and putting cigarettes out all over his body. Someone had slashed his gut with a pocket knife, and he had dressed the shallow wound with a dirty t-shirt and some duct tape.
He was a mess. My eyes are a nice green color.
I approached him and offered a cigarette. He asked if I had anything other than menthols, and I shook my head no. He signed and we both lit up, smoking in silence for a few moments, save for the occasional car horn or distant siren.
Finally, I spoke. “That’s an interesting sign,” I said.
“How do you figure?” he asked.
“Well the world hasn’t ended.”
“How do you figure?” he asked again.
“Well, we’re standing here, aren’t we? We’re living, breathing. People are driving by, some of them driving home from work and some of them driving to work and some of them driving nowhere in particular, they just like to drive. The bars are all open and serving. You can see the city in the distance, towering skyscrapers and LED lights. The sun will set soon and it will come back up tomorrow, probably. So, based on all this information, it seems to me that the world has very much not ended.”
The man said nothing but took a long drag. We stood in silence for a few more moments.
“Anyway,” I started up again, annoyed at his lack of argument, “if the world has already ended, then why bother standing out here on this street corner? None of this seems very productive to me.”
“I stand out here,” he said, motioning for another cigarette. I complied. “I stand out here because people don’t even know that the world has ended. People like you, and like everyone else. No one has even noticed.”
He sighed again. It was clear that he had given the forthcoming monologue many times, to little avail.
“I used to be like you,” he said. “A proud member of Corporate America, a Neo-Yuppie. I was an accountant at one of the Big Three and a pretty damned good one at that. But then 2008 happened and I lost everything. My savings, my house… My wife left me for a portfolio manager who had bet against the housing market the day before the crash and made millions. You probably haven’t heard of him. When Michael Lewis interviewed him for The Big Short he started rambling about how the housing crisis was a Jewish conspiracy so they cut him out of the book.
“So there I was, without a penny to my name and zero practical skills because there was no need for accountants anymore. Everyone was broke and so all those financial formulas I spent years memorizing were worthless.”
He paused to duck away from a Coors Light bottle that had been hurled out of a passing Audi.
“Anyway,” he continued. “I had nothing save for the clothes on my back and a solar-powered financial calculator. It was my only asset. I lived under a bridge and survived on packets of uncooked Ramen noodles that I fished out of the trash cans at a nearby university during the end of each semester.”
“Why at the end of each semester?” I asked.
“Because that’s when everyone throws away the packets of Ramen they haven’t eaten yet. You can stock up on six, eight months worth of Ramen easy that way. It’s not the most nutritious way to get by, but it works.”
That made sense to me. “Okay,” I said, “but you still haven’t explained how the world has already ended.”
“I’m getting there, hold your damn horses,” he said. “Where was I… Oh right, the bridge. So I was living under a bridge and eating packets of uncooked Ramen, so as you can probably imagine I had quite a bit of free time, and without much else to do, I decided to prepare my personal financial statements.
“Now, as you can also probably imagine, the process didn’t take very long. I had no income or operating expenses, so there was nothing for the Income Statement. I had no cash flows either, so that meant that the Statement of Cash Flows was also blank.
“The balance sheet though, that was a bit more involved. My only asset was my solar-powered financial calculator, so that part was easy. My liabilities were a bit harder to quantify, but eventually I got those accounts settled as well. Stuff like living under a bridge, surviving on uncooked Ramen packets, the constant threat of death on the streets… With OLS estimators you can put a number on pretty much anything.”
“OLS?” I asked surprised. “I thought you said you were an accountant.”
“I minored in economics,” he said. “Anyway, that left shareholders equity, and after accounting for my lack of self worth, crippling depression, anxiety, and relative indifference to my own continued survival, there wasn’t much to work with.
“None of that surprised me though. I was living under a bridge – obviously my balance sheet was going to be deep in the red. But the whole accounting process got me thinking, like maybe I could take the formulas I’d devised for my balance sheet and apply them on a larger scale, and that in doing so I could unearth some higher truth about the state of humanity.”
“Lofty aspirations,” I said. He nodded and motioned for another cigarette, and I hesitated this time because I was running low and because packs of Marlboros cost more than seven dollars at the craft beer shop and rent was due soon.
“Indeed,” he said. “And I didn’t even have internet access to help with the project. Daunting didn’t even begin to describe the task laid before me.”
It was starting to get dark out, and I was eager to get back to my apartment and watch Netflix, but I also didn’t want to be rude to what was very clearly a deranged homeless person. Two stray cats were fighting in the parking lot behind us, and a redneck old man was getting tossed out of a dive bar on the other side of the street. He was wearing a shirt that said “Stand for the Anthem or Go Play Soccer” and he was hollering about his right to free drinks. The bouncer wasn’t having any of it.
“The big issue,” continued the insane ex-accountant, “was the sheer amount of data I had to account for, and crunching all of it on my solar-powered financial calculator. You probably don’t think about this sort of thing on the regular, but there is a good bit of information that gets crammed into humanity’s balance sheet. There is the big stuff, obviously, wars, famines, market failures, Metacritic scores, Rotten Tomatoes scores, terrorism, mass shootings, polling numbers.
“But then there is a lot of smaller stuff. Stuff that doesn’t make the news or that you don’t realize is happening. Teenage pregnancy. Drug overdoses. Getting rejected to the prom. Wars. Terrorism. Polling numbers…”
“Those all sound like liabilities,” I interrupted.
“Most everything is,” he replied hazily. “But there are assets too, just not as many. Every once in awhile a climate change treaty gets ratified, or a good movie comes out. A dog jumps into a lake to save a drowning child. And you can’t forget traditional equities. Amazon is booming. Those companies that make fake meat are booming. Raytheon is always posting decent margins. Some people might argue that those are liabilities too, but I didn’t say my model was for everyone.
“But like I said, as I underwent my work, it quickly became clear that our assets weren’t going to equal our liabilities plus our shareholders equity…”
“How could you possibly calculate the shareholder’s equity for all of humanity,” I interrupted again, incredulous. “For a single person maybe, but this is starting to teeter into absurdity.”
“It was easy,” he said. “I set the share price to one and gave every single person on the planet a single share.”
I had to admit that wasn’t a terrible way of going about it. “So what then, our shareholders equity is equal to $7.4 billion?”
“Euros,” he corrected. “I tried to give us a little edge.”
“Well that sounds like quite a project,” I said.
“It was,” he replied. “Took me almost six years, and then another three years to go back and make sure everything was all in order, but at long last I boiled humanity down to a single number. There it all was, assets, liabilities, and shareholder equity. I had unearthed the singular truth that I had sought for so long.”
I was afraid to ask. “Well? Get on with it.”
He grinned. “Negative four hundred and sixty seven euros.”
“What?” I was floored. “That’s it?”
The man looked at me like I was the crazy one. “You don’t seem very concerned,” he noted.
“I guess after all that I was expecting our bottom line to be way worse. That’s like, five hundred dollars.”
“Hey man,” he said, annoyed at my lack of panic. “Five hundred dollars in the red is five hundred dollars in the red. And I’m not just talking about your overdue student loan payments here. I’m talking about all of humanity, every last one of us in a moral, ethical, societal, financial, sexual, artistic, conceptual, tangible, intangible default. Bankruptcy. I’m talking about bankruptcy. Do you even know what that means?”
“That we’ll probably end up taking a high interest bank loan?”
“Of course,” he scoffed, hoisting his doomsday sign up over his shoulder. “And here I was starting to think that maybe you wouldn’t be like all the rest, that maybe you would understand. That maybe you would have noticed.”
I shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t think what you’ve said isn’t interesting or carries some degree of legitimacy. I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
“Yeah, well we’ll see how big of a deal you think it all is when we get repossessed.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that.
He turned and started walking away.
“Wait!” I called out. “One last question!”
“Yeah?” he grunted.
“In your model you said that you accounted for good movies and that sort of thing. Was there any good literature written by millennials that made it onto the list of assets? You know, postmodern shit?”
“Well do you think that there might be in the future?”
“Nope,” he said again, laughing this time, and then he walked off.