Saturday, July 30, 2011

Locusts, Social Networking, and a Novel

"The locusts have no king, yet they go forth all of them by bands." So says Proverbs 30:27, which Dawn Powell took as epigraph, and from which she took the title of her novel The Locusts Have No King.

The Association for Computing Machinery's "TechNews" mailing for Wednesday July 20, included an item with the heading "Swarms of Locusts Use Social Networking to Communicate," which item linked to one of the same name at the Institute of Physics. This did not mean, I found, that the locusts are inflating Facebook's user counts, rather that the social interactions of locusts tend to align their direction of travel. The longer article included the curious paragraph
Locusts rely heavily on swarming as they are in fact cannibalistic. As they march across barren deserts, locusts carefully keep track of each other so they can remain within striking distance to consume one another – a cruel, but very efficient, survival strategy.
The characters of Powell's novel are not quite that ruthless, though quite a few will not let scruples or obligations stand in the way of their path to money, notoriety, or pleasure. Her New York is a few acres of Manhattan,at the last mid-century, most of her characters involved one way or another with publishing--writers, publishers, advertising agents, artists and commercial artists. It is a world she must have known inside out, and her picture of it convinces. Her most obnoxious women characters have a quality that bring to mind one of  Samuel Butler's argument for female authorship of the Odyssey: no man would have treated the maids that brutally.

The novel does show aspects of what the Institute of Physics means by social networking. The lonely scholar Frederick is oddly assured by Dodo's promiscuity: that so many men have wanted her suggests that his appetite is sound. The students at the Institute for Cultural Foundations learn to discuss books and plays in the light of newspaper reviews, and resent anyone who bothers to read or view for himself and take a different view. A playwright likens the city's drama critics to "an old married couple; they had lived together so long they looked and thought alike ..."


1 comment:

  1. I wonder how evolutionary forces work with locusts - you'd have thought the gimlet-eyed eaters would always be surviving and the slow-witted eatables dying out, until there was nothing left but twitching-eyed sorts who never turn their back for an instant.