By Paul M. Lewis

Not long ago, my partner and I were driving to Northern Arizona from our home in Southern California. We go each month to visit with my partner’s mother, who is in hospice care at a nursing home there. It’s usually at least an eight and a half hour drive each way, longer if somebody was texting, or chatting on the cell phone, or otherwise distracted, and so has caused an accident.

For the most part, we try to work it out so as to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic on the freeways, leaving early enough to give ourselves some breathing room. We also tend to take the northern route, heading up Interstate 15 to Barstow, and then taking I-40 east until it meets Arizona state route 89. Taking the I-10 east instead might cut off a few miles, but the 40 is so much more beautiful. It goes through the magnificent Mojave Desert National Preserve in California, and once you’re in Arizona you pass through an enchanting forest of juniper trees.

When there’s a problem on the roads, it’s always in the LA megalopolis. For us, getting to Barstow entails taking the 405 to the 22 to the 55 to the 91 to the 15. Anyone who drives the LA freeways knows what I’m talking about, and for those unfamiliar with these routes, it’s maybe enough to say that they can be torturous. One of the worst places is the intersection of the 91 and the 15, near the Inland Empire town of Corona. That’s because so many people have moved to the southern part of Riverside County, where housing at least once was a lot cheaper, in search of the American dream: a house with 3 or 4 bedrooms, living room, dining room and family room, plus a yard out back with grass where the kids can play and the dog can romp. If you’re lucky, or rich enough, maybe you even have a swimming pool, to boot.

For years, that intersection narrowed down to one lane, and traffic backed up accordingly. On a dark winter’s morning, driving east on the 91 and approaching the 15, you could see a gargantuan necklace of headlights, as cars awaited their turn to get onto the westbound 91. Nowadays, Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) is in the midst of a monster construction project there, involving a multiple lane overpass.

Which is what got me to thinking. The last time we came through there, we were on our way home, and so it was the middle of the afternoon. The behemoth hulk of the half-built overpass was plainly visible, hanging in midair, as workers and machines scrambled over the area following their appointed tasks, ones not necessarily apparent to us passersby. Still, progress was clearly being made, or I guess that’s what it’s called. At least, you could see that more of the road had been completed than when we started our regular treks to Arizona, something like eight months ago.

And no doubt, the folks who use those freeways everyday, commuting back and forth to jobs nearer the coast from communities like Riverside, or Lake Elsinore, or Murrieta, or even as far south as Temecula, will be overjoyed once the work is done. My guess is that things will be better for them, at least for maybe a year or two, until the traffic catches up with the improvements—as it always does—and we’re back once again looking at what will then be a double, or even a triple-line, necklace of headlights.

The Caltrans budget for the current 2015-16 year is 10.5 billion dollars, an almost 2 billion dollar, or 11.9%, increase over that of the previous year. Even though this represents less than 10% of the state’s overall budget of about $113 billion, it is still a lot of money. Though some might say even that’s not enough. After all, without our freeways, how would people get to work, how would goods and services be moved, how would anyone get anywhere, for any reason? But remember this, too, that the ten billion plus dollars spent by the state on Caltrans this year represents only a tiny fraction of the amount spent over the years on the building of this kind of infrastructure. In other words, that ten billion is the cost for maintenance, and some isolated construction projects, on a system that basically already exists.

What has occurred to me many times, as we drive through that interchange between the 91 and the 15—or any other you may care to name—is why did we never invest the same monumental sums of money into rail connections? In my freeway-smog addled mind’s eye, I imagine my partner and me, for example, sitting comfortably in a bullet train, heading east out of downtown Los Angeles straight to Phoenix. Then, after relaxing for a short wait in a beautifully appointed train station there, we would take another line north from Phoenix to Prescott (our final destination); or, if it had to go to Flagstaff first, then from there on a smaller branch line down to Prescott. This same kind of convenient train travel could of course be reproduced in all fifty states. But that is not what we have. What trains are available are hardly convenient. Years ago, we took a train trip from Los Angeles to Seattle. It was supposed to leave LA at noon, and arrive in Seattle at 8:00 PM the following evening. Instead, it left at 4:00 PM and arrived at 3:00 o’clock in the morning two days later. Does that instill confidence in getting from place to place on time, to say nothing of comfortably? This huge delay happened mostly because there is, for the most part, only one train track between these two major west coast cities, and freight trains often take the right-of-way. It’s not supposed to be like that, but the freight carriers far prefer to pay the relative pittance of a fine for not giving way to a passenger train, and so slowing down their own operations.

If the government—and of course the people who elect their representatives—made train travel a priority, we could have made that same journey in a matter of hours, not days. Just as Europeans do on their trains, or the Japanese, or nowadays even the Chinese. The travel time, for example, between Paris and Marseille—a journey of approximately 775 miles—takes about 3 hours and 40 minutes on the TGV (train à grande vitesse, France’s version of the bullet train). You leave from central Paris and arrive in central Marseille. No need to bother with highways, airports, or parking, or sitting in traffic. You can read, chat with your fellow passengers, or just sit and look out the window. And all this for about 25 euros, just over $28 US dollars, according to the current exchange rate. Is that what it costs to actually operate these state-of-the-art trains? Probably not, but the government is willing to subsidize the cost, and so are the French people. By contrast, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix is about 365 miles. The Amtrak ticket costs $100 more than the ticket between Paris and Marseille, and it is estimated that the trip will take over 10 hours. In other words, it would cost 4 times as much, and take more than 3 times as long, for my partner and me to go half the distance. And we would still have to either rent a car in Phoenix to get to Prescott (a two hour drive), or get ourselves to the airport there to pick up the shuttle van.

Why would we ever do that? Indeed, why would anyone take a train in the United States, when travel by car is so much faster, cheaper, and more convenient? The answer obviously is almost no one. But what is behind these questions may be more interesting. One estimate of the cost of building the interstate system is that it takes approximately $1 million for every mile of highway built. Using that estimate, and multiplying it by the almost 48,000 miles of interstate highways we have in this country, we come to the mind-blowing total of approximately $48,000,000,000. To put it in words, because most of us are not used to seeing that many zeros after any number, that is forty-eight trillion dollars. Naturally, the money was spent to build these roads over the course of many decades. Still, by way of comparison, the entire US GDP, the Gross Domestic Product (i.e., the cost of all goods and services produced in the country in a given year) is projected to be just under $18 trillion dollars for 2016.

I learned a long time ago, working for many years at universities, that budgeting is always a matter of deciding on priorities. When my boss told me I could not hire an adviser I thought we needed, but I learned later that another office was able to, it was clear that that other office had a higher priority in the hierarchy of what was considered important at the university. Each of us does the same thing with our own household budgets. New car? Well, maybe not this year. Maybe it’s best to get the roof fixed, or pay down that outrageous credit card bill.

Although admittedly far more complex, the basic principle is the same when it comes to countries. Money is ultimately put where you, the taxpayer (via your representatives), want it to go. And Americans want their cars, and their highways. We want to be able to go out our front door, jump into our automobile, and hit the open road. Or that’s the fantasy, at least. We’re rugged individualists; we want independence, free choice; we want to go where we want, when we want, and to be able to stop whenever it’s convenient. Leave the trains—those giant conveyor belts of groups of people—to the socialists in Europe, or the communists in China. So, don’t look for a diminishing of car travel any time soon in this country. California has been attempting to build a bullet train between LA and San Francisco for several years now, but with all of the court challenges against it, the project has just barely begun. And even if and when it is completed, it will be required to run without state subsidy.

In the end, we get what we pay for. Americans have always wanted what we think of as our freedom of movement: the car in the garage ready to whisk us off whenever we choose either to work, or to school, or to an enchanting land of adventure. But along with this comes packed freeways, bumper-to-bumper traffic, huge costs, and polluted skies. If that is what we want, then that’s what we’ve got. And if anybody prefers a nice train ride, swift, clean, reliable and cheap, well, they’d just better take a trip to Paris to find it.


By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.