In recent years, thanks to the invention of fMRI, we have made extraordinary breakthroughs in understanding the mental life of people trapped in the grey zone. We have discovered that 15% to 20% of people in the vegetative state, who are widely assumed to have no more awareness than a head of broccoli, are in fact fully conscious, even though they never respond to any form of external stimulation. They may open their eyes, grunt and groan, and occasionally utter isolated words. They appear to live entirely in their own world, devoid of thoughts or feelings. Many really are as oblivious and incapable of thought as their doctors believe. But a sizeable number are experiencing something quite different: intact minds adrift deep within damaged bodies and brains. We have even figured out how to communicate directly with such people.
But the nation-state with its borders, centralised governments, common people and sovereign authority is increasingly out of step with the world. And as Karl Marx observed, if you change the dominant mode of production that underpins a society, the social and political structure will change too.
This is the crux of the problem: nation-states rely on control. If they can’t control information, crime, businesses, borders or the money supply, then they will cease to deliver what citizens demand of them. In the end, nation-states are nothing but agreed-upon myths: we give up certain freedoms in order to secure others. But if that transaction no longer works, and we stop agreeing on the myth, it ceases to have power over us.
However, therein lies the danger. “Happy people don’t really make great art, you know?” Smith says. “Great art comes from sadness and misery. I’m 46” — he has since turned 47 — “I don’t wanna fuckin’ go through negative shit anymore.” Instead of trying to make that great art, he decided years ago to aim for art that satisfies both himself and his rabid fanbase, and you can argue that that decision took him out of the cinematic zeitgeist while his ‘90s indie compatriots continued to set the pace.
But now, he’s making his first tentative steps back into the mainstream with a series of major TV-directing gigs, a deal to create his first true comic-book screen adaptation, and a risky cinematic revisitation of his most famous creations, Jay and Silent Bob — the latter of whom is played by the creator, himself. In other words, Kevin Smith has the chance to re-enter the race for mass appeal. The question is: Can he catch up with the world he helped create?
However eternal its concerns, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America.