(A P.S. to this post: I've just heard that Ursula K. Le Guin died on Monday [Jan 22 2018], aged 88. She was Portland's finest. Such a sad loss. R.I.P.)
I’m sitting in Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon, reading a slice of classic sci-fi, and I’m contemplating what it means to create a contemporary utopia.
The book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Lathe of Heaven’. It’s set in Portland, and it tells the story of a man who can transform reality through the power of his dreams. It’s a curiously perfect Bookpackers novel for a city that has tried in recent decades to fashion a progressive paradise here in the Pacific North West.
I thought long and hard about which book to bring on this bookpackers trip. It wasn’t immediately obvious; Portland lacks iconic book choices.
A few weeks ago, back home in L.A., I got chatting with one of my favorite neighbours, Bonnie Koehler. My dog Alfie has a thing for her poodle, Fifi. She (Bonnie, not Fifi) had just got back from Portland, where she grew up before leaving for California in the late ‘60s for college and a career in the film industry. She goes back regularly to visit her sister in the family home in Eastmoreland, a gorgeous tree-lined Portland suburb east of the Willamette River, and whenever she’s back she pops into the bookstore at Reed College just down the road, to see what the students are reading, and when downtown she makes an obligatory pilgrimage to Powell’s, the famous Portland bookstore that covers a whole city block. She’s bookish, and she and I like chatting about books, and so, as Alfie and Fifi sniffed each other lovingly, I asked her which novelist best captures the flavour of her home city.
Later that day she emailed some thoughts.
Great question. And as I ponder it, I wonder if Portland is more a city of readers than writers. No obvious answers come readily to mind about a quintessential Portland author.
But one would have to consider Ken Kesey - an Oregon, if not a Portland author - ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’. And of course we shot the Cuckoo’s Nest film in Oregon (Salem, 1975).
And then there is the more obscure but very Oregon Don Berry. He studied at Reed College with my parents and shared a house with the poet Gary Snyder. Of Don's books - historical fiction - there is ‘Trask’, ‘Moontrap’ and ‘To Build a Ship’. ‘Trask’ was very popular for a time, but I think Don died recently in relative obscurity. I met him in the 80's in Seattle when he was writing copy for documentary films and unknown to the new generation of readers.
Richard Brautigan is an Oregonian, I think - ‘Trout Fishing in America’.
But, oddly, no great novel about Portland or the wagon trains, lumber industry, fishing, Native Americans - a bountiful and dynamic history - seems to have hit the Steinbeck level of cultural penetration. I shall think about this further...
I’d read one of Bonnie’s recommendations just recently - Ken Kesey’s ‘Sometimes a Great Notion’ - and the book was in my thoughts on Thursday (Thanksgiving) when we took a rainy drive through the Columbia Gorge. The rain lashed down on the windscreen, and outside the car the mist swirled, and waterfalls cut white swathes through the fir trees. We didn’t stop; the trail roads are closed because of recent forest fires. But we saw enough to be inspired by Oregon’s lumber history, and I enjoyed contemplating Kesey’s epic tale of the Stamper family, loggers who live by the rugged and ungrammatical code “Never Give a Inch”, a motto carved in wood above the infant Hank Stamper’s bed. It’s a brilliant book. It would be a contender, surely, for that dread accolade ‘The Great American Novel’, had Kesey not given it such a lousy and unmemorable title.
But as Bonnie pointed out, it’s not a Portland novel. And so I went to Powell’s Books’ website, and there in a list of local books was ‘The Lathe of Heaven’, by Ursula K. Le Guin, “the Northwest's very own SFWA Grand Master”. SFWA is the ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’ - and usually I discount sci-fi from my bookpackers selections, because bookpacking is about being ‘in the now’. But something about ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ tickled my interest, and I’m glad it did, because it’s rather brilliant - a small gem of philosophy with a strongly local flavour, full of references to Portland locations and infused with a sense of what makes this city tick.
‘The Lathe of Heaven’ is the fantastical story of a man called George Orr (a nod to George Orwell), who is afraid to fall asleep because his dreams dictate the destiny of the world. He visits an ‘oneirologist’ (a dream specialist) called Dr. William Haber, but Haber is a nefarious character with bold ambitions who plants suggestions in George’s mind, crafting through his dreams the kind of utopian future Haber imagines will benefit the world. We witness Portland reconfigured through various dream realities. What starts as merely tinkering - improving the weather - builds to a reimagined global society, with Portland as its capital and Haber as its despot. Haber preaches utilitarianism - the greatest good for the greatest number - but each improvement has unexpected consequences. Over-population is solved only when George dreams of a plague that retrospectively wipes out most of the earth’s population. Racial discord is eliminated when George dreams of a world of gray-skinned people; he wakes to find that the woman he loves, the daughter of a black father and a white mother, has never been born, and when he searches his memory he finds in it ‘no address that had been delivered on a battlefield in Gettysburg, nor any man known to history named Martin Luther King’.
It all goes pear-shaped, of course, as sci-fi utopias must. Portland dissolves in an apocalyptic firestorm - which is a fun sequence to read sitting in a cosy coffee shop in downtown.
The novel reminded me of John Wyndham, whose books I loved as a teenager - sci-fi as a cover for broad-brushstroke musings on civil society. It had sequences that reminded me of Vonnegut, and others that reminded me of Le Guin’s West Coast contemporaries Pynchon and Philip K. Dick (she was apparently at high school with the latter, although they didn’t meet until later). And the novel stands up to all these comparisons. I liked it - it was fun and thought provoking, and occasionally inspired.
Like all good Bookpacker books, ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ makes frequent references to streets and districts and local landmarks; it roots you in the geography of Portland. It describes the bridges over the Willamette River, the freeways, the skyscrapers and the downtown grid. As we walked the damp city streets I found myself thinking about moments and characters from the novel - the lawyer Heather Lelache in her ‘clump-heel shoes’, lost on Arkady Street as reality shifts around her; Portland’s Chinatown, wiped away to create space for Haber’s futuristic new city; the Pittock Mansion in the West Hills, rebuilt as the towering headquarters of Haber’s ‘Human Utility’ research centre.
South of downtown, we drove to Corbett Avenue, where the novel’s hero George Orr lives. In one overpopulated version of Portland’s future, his home is a single room in a tower block, a 'twenty-story independent-income steel-and-sleazy-concrete Corbett Condominium (Budget Living in Style Down Town!)’. Later in the book - once plague has wiped out the surplus population - we find him in a version of the street more like present day reality, in an 'old frame house… that had come on hard times but was proceeding toward ruin with composure and a certain dirty magnificence'. I love the idea that ordinary streets like Corbett Avenue have achieved a marginal fame as obscure locations in literature - and that quixotic bookpackers like me might seek them out accordingly. In the Thanksgiving twilight I watched the locals entertaining in their brightly lit interiors, and wondered how many of them were aware of the alternate fictional ‘continuums’ Le Guin had plotted for them.
And I thought, too, about Le Guin, and what she must make of this city. She’s 88 years old now, and still a Portland resident. She wrote the novel in 1971, but set it in 2002, so her future has become our past, allowing the contemporary reader to judge her prescience, noting how many of her Cassandra-style prognostications have become a reality.
She wrote ‘The Lathe of Heaven’ in the vanguard of the contemporary American environmental movement, and the novel is infused with environmental concerns - overpopulation, and the effects of Greenhouse gases. In the novel, the snow on Mt. Hood has melted, and she describes ‘the endless warm drizzle of spring—the ice of Antarctica, falling softly on the heads of the children of those responsible for melting it’. She describes downtown Portland with no cars; private car ownership has long since been ‘strangled in its own exhaust’. The elite drive battery fueled ‘batcars’ (I wish she’d gone for ‘batmobiles’). At one point Haber’s ‘battery gave out and he couldn't get to a recharger because the crowds in the street were so thick’. Automated parking structures, now redundant, are converted into office blocks (‘All the floors had a curious slant, a skewness, due to the basic helical-ramp construction of the building; in the offices of Forman, Esserbeck, Goodhue and Rutti, one was never entirely convinced that one was standing quite upright’).
I hoped to spot Mt. Hood from the Pittock Mansion in the hills above downtown, but Portland’s friendly local volcano was shrouded in cloud; on our final morning we woke to clear skies - and I’m gratified to report that the mountain is still decked in white. Portland’s population (three million in the novel) is still in the 300,000s. Cars fill the streets, but it’s hardly L.A., and people drive with courtesy. Our Uber drivers were lovely, keen to chat and to fill us in on various places to visit. It’s hardly the dystopian future Le Guin foresaw. But even if the chronology is wrong, the trajectory is surely right. Her fears, so left-field in the early 70’s, are now global concerns. She saw it.
And the questions she asks, couched in sci-fi terms, are as relevant as ever. Can we change our destiny? Can we dream a different future? And if so - at what price?
It’s a question particularly pertinent somehow to this part of America. Le Guin is both a prophet and a product of the Pacific Northwest. The early pioneers here were Yankee dreamers, seeking to invent a new Eden in the Willamette Valley. I remember reading once about the ‘million dollar wagon’, driven here overland from Iowa by a nurseryman, Henderson Luelling, in 1847. In his wagon were saplings - apples, pears, plums, cherries, quinces, grapes. His oxen dragged the wagon through the treacherous passes of the Sierras, and Luelling was dismissed as a fool, a dreamer - but his saplings became the horticultural stock that launched the Willamette fruit industry, thriving to this day. The pioneers flooded the land, the Chinook were displaced and killed. Then came the lumber barons, dreaming of a limitless supply of white fir, the wood that built America, and whole forests were laid waste - a ’stumpland’.
Le Guin captures in the novel this uneasy balance between glorious dreams and their often devastating consequences. She calls her anti-hero “Haber” - a reference, presumably, to Fritz Haber, a man who illustrates the best and worst in utopian thinking. Fritz Haber was an early 20th Century German chemist who produced industrial fertilizer by fixing the nitrogen in the air. The food eaten by half the world’s population still depends on his process - “Bread from the Air”. It won him the Nobel Prize. But during the First World War, Haber put ammonia to a more pernicious use, developing poison gases for use in the trenches. In the 1920s, he developed Zyklon-A, a pesticide adapted by the Nazis to terrible effect in Auschwitz. (Haber was Jewish, by the way - a grim irony there).
In the novel, George challenges Dr. Haber’s monomaniacal meddling -
“You can't go on changing things, trying to run things."
"You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative." He looked at Orr with his genial, reflective smile, stroking his beard. "But in fact, isn't that man's very purpose on earth—to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?"
"What is his purpose, then?"
"I don't know. Things don't have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What's the function of a galaxy? I don't know if our life has a purpose and I don't see that it matters. What does matter is that we're a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass."
I read this passage in Stumpland Coffee, and reflected on contemporary Portland, and how this city has reinvented itself in the past decade, and how dreamers yet again have turned dreams into reality - with unwitting consequences.
What do we think of nowadays when we think about Portland? Rain, of course. But also - hipsters, bikes, artisan goods, home roast coffee, ‘Portlandia’. What once was a grubby port city with a reputation for graft and violence has emerged in the past few decades as a progressive capital. Overwhelmingly Democrat. Cut down a tree and plant three more. Think local, act global. “Keep Portland Weird”. Portlanders have crafted for themselves a distinct self-identity as a place apart, at a remove from the trajectory of modern America.
Sipping our direct-trade coffee, we watched two smiling hipsters with identical beards and woolen hats, and duffle coats straight out of ‘Paddington’. Outside in Stark Street, cyclists used the broad swathe of green paint denoting a cycle lane. We shopped in the Pearl District and on 23rd Avenue, tourist meccas bursting with independent stores selling quirky and interesting locally-sourced goods. Little of this existed a decade ago; Portland has chosen to dream its own destiny, and to make it real.
But just as in the novel, there’s a flip-side. We were struck, as all tourists must be, by the crisis of homelessness in Portland. Close to two thousand people sleep rough in downtown every night. There are tent encampments everywhere. Searching for an address referenced in the novel - 209 W. Burnside, the site of the automated parking garage - I found myself in the old town by the Skidmore Fountain, where the homeless missions are concentrated - the Salvation Army, the Gospel Union Mission, and the Liberation Street Church, where “everyday is Resurrection Day”. Homeless men and women sat on the sidewalks, waiting for the missions to open - ‘three hots and a cot’.
The crisis in part is a consequence of Portland’s progressive and inclusive spirit. Portland is a charitable and caring city, and vagrancy laws are interpreted loosely. But also, we were struck by the demographic of homelessness here. The rough sleepers seem predominantly white, and in their 20s. In L.A.’s Skid Row, the demographic is older, and overwhelmingly African-American. L.A.’s crisis is one of race and opportunity and welfare. Here in Portland, it seems rather as if the city’s progressive self-identity is acting as a magnet.
Cause, and heart-breaking consequence.
Sorry to be such a downer. And don’t get me wrong, we had a wonderful city break. I was there with my family, for four days over Thanksgiving. We ate great food (the highlights were 23Hoyt for Thanksgiving dinner, and a brunch in Radar on Mississippi Avenue). We visited the rose garden in Washington Park, and the Portland Art Museum, and we drove around Eastmoreland in Bonnie’s honour. The rain held off, for the most part, although we were happy when it came because, being British, it felt like home. The autumn colours were sensational - the yellows of the ginkgo trees in Lownsdale Square will stay with me forever.
On our final evening we went to the tree-lighting ceremony in ‘Portland’s living room’, Pioneer Square, where the crowd sang not just traditional carols, but Ukrainian and Lebanese Christmas songs, and a Jewish song for Hannukah. It’s a glorious city, really - inclusive and welcoming and dynamic. But all those homeless young people sleeping on soggy cardboard remains our abiding memory. Time, perhaps, for George Orr to dream another dream...?