NEWS IS SLOW to reach us in Dodge City but when it does we take it to heart.

 

 

There is no news for a while. Then there is:

 

 

David Cronenberg has been deemed “unsustainably long in the tooth” after a two-year investigation spearheaded by the Dept. of Fish and Game. A full survey of his works by a “panel topheavy with experts,” as the report puts it, has determined that the drop-off in filmic vitality between his early-to-middle works and his middle-to-late ones is regrettably sharp enough to strip him of his National Hero status, which is not, the report takes pains to remind us, a matter of opinion but rather one of National Policy.

 

 

“A matter of National Security even,” pundits add, “since surely you’ll agree that a nation that chooses its Heroes unwisely is not one bound for stage lights and lear jets.”

 

 

Cronenberg’s obsolescence is mourned nationally, though there is also some shamefaced relief at the making-public of what we’ve all secretly known for years. Vietnam-style news footage of burning Cronenberg effigies paraded by gloved hands through the streets of Washington, and of self-immolating Cronenberg impersonators in the backwoods of California and Oregon, floods our TV sets and RSS feeds.

 

 

FEMA and the National Guard, we learn, have been deployed at strategic locations around the country, to quiet unrest and force a certain amount of solace on the population as we go through the several stages of grief.

 

 

We wonder if and when they’ll come for us.

 

 

The Mayor has decided to take all National Directives literally, so he orders a work crew to turn up one morning and take down the 30-ft Cronenberg statue in the town square.

 

 

Naked children run after it, crying and rubbing dirt in their hair, as a truck drags it to the dump. It looks like that elephant funeral scene in Santa Sangre. Along the way, the statue’s head cracks off. A hundred sobbing widows bear it away to a shrine in the hills.

 

 

This is where FEMA steps in.

 

 

They show up in a long row of vans to pry the head away from the widows and drag it down from the hills and again to the dump, where they smash it to gravel.

 

 

“Let this be an example,” they say.

 

 

THEN they lead everyone back to the town square, where they set up a stage on the site where the statue used to be.

 

 

They demand our attention and we give it.

 

 

FEMA explains that a pageant is to be held — here in Dodge City, as elsewhere around the nation.

 

 

“Due to technicalities arising from the fact that Cronenberg is what is known in German as a Grenzgänger, or border-walker, being at once a Canadian citizen and an American hero, the task of replacing him is not as easy as the layman might expect. People always expect things to be easy.”

 

 

FEMA takes a moment here to compose itself, apparently surprised at how emotional this all is.

 

 

It continues: “So, rather than appointing a replacement on the national level, behind closed doors, we are putting it to you, the people. The Cronenberg-spirit, loosed from its former housing, is now at large in the country, free to settle and reassert itself where it will. Mothers, fathers, abductors … anyone with access to promising young folk, we urge you to enter your little boy or girl into the running. Out of all the applicants, one New Cronenberg will be chosen, to pick up at the exact point where the Old went downhill. All applicants must be under twenty, to ensure a maximally long and fruitful career. The first pageant, on the town level, will be held here in the square a week from today. Now get busy!”

 

 

FEMA shoots a .45 into the air and everyone scatters.

 

 

*****

Over the course of this week I roam Dodge City at random, intrigued to see the rehearsals underway. Parents with kids aged 5 to 11 occupy all available space, in stores and restaurants, at the mall, and on all the sidewalks and sometimes even in the road, trying to devise and rehearse a Cronenberg Routine that will catch FEMA’s eye.

 

 

People around here don’t need to be told twice or think hard to know that opportunities like this come rarely if ever. A life as Cronenberg is considerably more than most would’ve allowed themselves to dream for their children.

 

 

The school hangs a huge CLOSED sign over its front door, though I’m the only person I ever see within eyeshot of it.

 

 

Elsewhere in town, teenagers work unsupervised, the atmosphere around them seedier, more Larry Clark, less junior beauty pageant.

 

 

Lots of small animals suffer — moles, lizards, sparrows … many people have the idea that torturing animals will bring them closer to Cronenberg in FEMA’s eyes. They implant these animals with household chemicals and stray bits of trash, metal … anything to compromise their biology, prejudice it toward the toxic, the bionic.

 

 

Other children do it to themselves, some even going so far as to poison or amputate their own limbs, or pieces thereof, forcibly stamping sexual orifices into parts of their bodies where there had been none, and never would have been had nature proceeded undisturbed, which of course in Cronenberg it never does.

 

 

I see several girls with dog and cat penises stapled or sewn into their crotches, and wonder whether FEMA will disqualify some of them for infringing on the ideas of others, and, if so, how it will choose.

 

*****

WHEN THE DAY COMES, we all gather in the square, the air ashy from the wave of immolation that’s flared up this past week.

 

 

Above the stage, FEMA has hung a banner that reads “Pageant of the New Cronenberg.” It’s already ash-colored.

 

 

The applicants are all lined up, checking each other out, trying to avoid eye contact, pretending they’re only worried about themselves.

 

 

One mother shows up with a huge pile of battered VHS tapes spilling out of her arms. “My son’s in here,” she says, when a local reporter asks. “Trust me.”

 

 

I feel like the show has begun, though I was waiting for FEMA to shoot its .45 into the air again.

 

 

A SUCCESSION OF CHILDREN passes across the stage, yanked by the strings of their parents’ aspiration. I root for them all, but I can tell that some core factor is missing.

 

 

Not one of the twenty-two performances I’ve seen strikes a real chord. The fundamentally alien nature of selfhood and embodiment feels as abstract to me now as it did before, a stasis which no item of genuine Cronenberg can afford to permit.

 

 

Whatever would enable a child to impress FEMA as a genuine candidate just isn’t here. As each one deploys the act they’ve been working on all week, with their parents hovering nervously behind them, it feels like they’re tracing the outline of an empty circle, describing the void at whose center resides the essence that made Scanners, The Brood, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, Crash, et al what they are … before drying to a trickle for A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis.

 

 

I get fried broccoli and water from a stand and watch the scene devolve.

 

 

Soon, FEMA has called off the pageant, clearing away all the variously costumed and self-mutilated kids and pulling the banner down.

 

 

The Mayor clambers onstage to beg for a second chance. His feet are lost among fallen animal parts and screws, bolts, and staples, non-standard body substances and foam rubber.

 

 

“I’m sincerely sorry that what we had to offer from our main town stock wasn’t … and I agree that it wasn’t … um … but, what I’m trying to say is … give us one last chance. Please. Okay? Let’s all take a trip over to the Dodge City Annex, where, and I speak for all of us here, no one’s been since before Y2K … and see if anyone over there is more to your liking. The citizenry there is much more characterful. There is another spirit that resides there. This much I can promise.”

 

 

The Mayor stutters and looks around in loops as he talks, but he gets it out. FEMA seems mildly intrigued. It’s clearly not in their interest to leave town without a few contenders in tow.

 

*****

SO, IN ANOTHER PARADE, with all the defeated Cronenberg-hopefuls taking up the rear, we set off, out of town along a road no one ever uses because it doesn’t lead anywhere except to the Dodge City Annex, which I hadn’t even known existed until now.

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