The Manual

Maybe I’ve been wrapped in the deadening clutches of US bureaucracy too much lately — yesterday at a branch office of the INS/CIS, fetchingly situated in the end unit of an unlovely strip-mall — but it occurred to me yesterday as I sat with the other hopeful souls that, while the essence of a country like Britain is its history and tradition, the essence of the US is a kind of user manual. It’s a country, but maybe more than that it’s a way of running a country: a country algorithm; a franchisable concept. I imagine an actual, foot-thick, heavily-thumbed tome in all of these government offices: America: The User Manual. To be sure, it’s had plenty of revisions over the years, but the Constitution is its first few static pages, and the Supreme Court is always there to rule on what the manual says.

I don’t mean this pejoratively at all. I think it’s mostly a fascinating and optimistic experiment: rather than allowing American-ness to emerge from its jumble of generations and accidental significances, it’s declaimed from the rooftops. There’s a fundamentalism in the primacy of money that I find quite chilling sometimes, but it does arise inevitably, if not quite by design, from the Manual. There’ll be time for some enforced dalliance with more socialist ideas when the space runs out and people have to co-exist across the country rather more than they do now. Either that or the whole place will turn into something dystopic from Blade Runner or Metropolis.

Almost the entire staff of the INS/CIS office seemed to be no more than a generation or two from their own immigration, which is as it should be. It pleased me that two bottle-blondes with heavy Russian accents appeared to run the place. Anyone can use the Manual.


We forget how much we actually live in the future. As I sat in the McDonald’s across the road eating perfectly rubbery egg and spreading tasteless margarine on the tasteless generic baked-good that came with it, I was fortunate enough to actually see, I think for the first time, a ritual so Jetsons, so post-automat, that it took my breath away. Here’s what happened. At the close of the breakfast hours, one of the servers reached up and rotated the picture-menus above the counter. They rotated smoothly and with a heart-breaking synchronisation, eggs becoming burgers, hotcakes becoming chicken-strips. Breakfast vanished in a moment, and without a trace. The new pictures fitted as snugly within their frames as the expunged ones had done, the rotation itself a big secret. I was disappointed only that the process wasn’t yet completely automated, the entire counter-space folding and unfolding with the Ken Adam chrome and hum of Goldfinger’s pool table becoming a scale-model of Fort Knox.


Oh yes. Even if you know all he’s going to do is take your fingerprints, watching a government employee snap on a clean latex glove is quite enough to cause the involuntary tightening of one’s anal sphincter.

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