Crossing UFOs and sacred texts in a whodunit
Starting with its beguiling title, “Journal of a UFO Investigator” by David Halperin (Viking, $25.95) is an enchantment from beginning to end, a coming-of-age story that is also a kind of whodunit and, above all, an eerie adventure tale set in the subculture of flying saucers and space creatures.
Most intriguing of all, however, is the fact the David Halperin brings to his first novel everything he has learned about myth and legend over a long career as a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Halperin, for example, has written extensively about the visions of Ezekiel, whose description of fiery wheels has long been interpreted as an account of an early visitation by a spaceship.
The story that Halperin tells opens on the day in 1966 when 13-year-old Danny Shapiro reports a sighting to his friends and fellow adolescent “UFO investigators.” The search for a plausible explanation draws young Danny into a mysterious text, an even more mysterious death, and then into what appears to be a deadly pursuit across time and space. “Riddles chased mysteries, were chased by enigmas, around and around my brain,” is how young Danny explains it all to himself.
Ultimately, Danny finds himself transported to an otherworldly place— or is it? “I felt weirdly light, as if I were going to sail off into space at any time,” he observes. “Colored shapes streamed through the black sky above us. A flotilla of glowing objects, like the one that stopped over my house and hurled itself down upon me.” But then the author offers the hint of a more worldly explanation: “Like the gas station signs, the evening before my mother’s heart attack, when my father drove us home from a picnic in the country and I lay with my feet in his lap and my head in hers, and I watched the blazing disk of Gulf and the red star of Texaco and the winged, bloodred horse of Mobilgas stream through the sky window. I was safe then and happy. For the last time.”
So the world of “UFOlogists” and sci-fi fans turns out to have something in common with the workings of the human imagination that also produced the sacred texts, or so we may conclude from “Journal of a UFO Investigator.” Indeed, Halperin eventually puts his characters into the modern Middle East, where the mythical “Men in Black” are taken to be Zionists rather than agents of some intergalactic conspiracy, and where a flash of light in the night sky turns out to be exploding land mine. “[W]e pick our demons,” observes Danny, now older and wiser, “and build our worlds around them.”
Halperin never fully explains the strange fate that befalls Danny Shapiro. He invites us to believe that Danny has traveled through time and space on a mind-boggling journey, but he also permits us to conclude that we are witnessing nothing more than the overheated imagination of a tormented adolescent. “I used to think, if I researched them, investigated the sightings, learned the physics of how they fly, I might be transported with them into the skies,” writes Danny in his last word on UFOs. “Last summer I was transported. I flew, I really did, to Israel and back. But then I crashed. I’m still digging myself out of that wreckage.”
At one point in the novel, Danny is using a microfilm reader at the local library to investigate previous sightings, and he holds his hand above the flickering screen. “My hand then took on a ghostly appearance, not invisible exactly but transparent, as though my bone and flesh had become unreal,” he recalls. “The only things real were the letters and words of the long-forgotten stories, shining upon my skin.”
At that ethereal moment, the author offers us a glimpse into the world of magic that he has conjured up with such power and mastery. David Halperin spent his academic career in the study of ancient religious texts, and now that he has he turned to writing fiction, he is still in the thrall of words on the page. Thanks to “Journal of a UFO Investigator,” his readers will be, too.
Ice on Mars: Good for the Jews?
I have always been only slightly embarrassed by my avidity for reports of UFOs, ETs, new planetary systems, semantic transmissions across the galaxies and every
other kind of disruptive wow.
My embarrassment stems not from a reflexive belief in reports of bright lights flying low and fast over Stephenville, Texas or Chilliwack, British Columbia; I am as skeptical of tabloid headlines, and as cautious about the madness of crowds, as any other child of Voltaire or Mad Magazine.
No, what makes me sheepish about this stuff isn’t my intellectual credulousness; it’s my yearning for some indisputable event that will bust up our paradigms, some unruly discovery that will force us to remake from scratch our stories about who we are, where we come from and where we’re headed.
Now that the Phoenix Lander has confirmed the existence of ice on Mars, it’s likely to be only days before we learn whether the red planet’s soil and water contain the chemicals necessary for creating the kind of life we have on Earth. I’m rooting for carbon. Hell, I’m rooting for amino acids. I want it to be conceivable that Mars is a mere billion years behind Earth on the path to evolution, or maybe, sadly, a couple of billion years ahead of us on the road to extinction. And if not carbon, if they don’t find organic molecules, I’m rooting for some strange silicon-based information-rich strings in that Martian soup.
I want what’s found in that ice to make us say, Whoa! I want us to experience the kind of radical amazement that will require sending conventional cosmology to the repair shop. I want data that upend our accepted accounts of origins and evolution. I want scientific cover for the most boldly creative re-imaginings of the nature of life and of our own place in the great chain of being. I want to see the concepts of meaning and purpose up for grabs. I want new discoveries about stardust to make both ancient texts and current textbooks wholly inadequate for understanding the mysterium tremendum of the physical universe.
I want the discovery of extraterrestrial life — or “life” — to change everything. I don’t mean an eruption of “War of the Worlds”-style paranoia or of “Close Encounters”-style romanticism. I’m thinking instead of that 4-million-year-old black monolith that astronauts find deliberately buried on the moon in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an object identical to one in the movie’s opening “Dawn of Man” sequence. Forget the middle part of the movie, the voyage to Jupiter to examine a third monolith circling that planet, a trip sabotaged by the mutinous supercomputer HAL; think instead about how the movie ends.
There is an amazing light show, followed by actor Keir Dullea’s accelerated aging in a weird Louis XVI-furnished room, followed abruptly by Dullea’s transformation into the Star Child, a fetus in a glowing orb looking down from space on the Earth. If you’re of boomerish vintage, you know that plenty of stoned debates about the meaning of the movie’s strange conclusion followed its initial release (I know, I know: you didn’t inhale). The interpretation that worked best for me was that, basically, we humans don’t know nothing.
Is evolution the merely pointless, meaningless consequence of having world enough and time, or is our current state of consciousness just too embryonic to grasp the telos of the universe? If cosmologists are right about the Big Bang, what’s the difference between the essential preposterousness of that account of ontology, and the tsimtsum of the kabbalah? If a starry night or a baby’s finger can make you marvel at the sheer existence of anything at all, why should God be a less plausible account of materiality than quantum physics’ favorite theory: superstrings vibrating in 11 ineffable dimensions of space-time? If scientists believe, as they do, that invisible dark matter and unobservable dark energy make up the vast majority of the universe, then why should mystical accounts of an unseeable cosmos be any more inconceivable?
Jews, of course, don’t need monoliths, or Martian ice water, to set them off in these speculative directions. Jacob was renamed Israel because he wrestled with God, and his descendants still spend their days wrestling with the idea of God, no matter what the news might be from the Large Hadron Collider, the SETI Arecibo Observatory or the Phoenix Lander on Mars.
Nor do I underestimate the capacity of midrashic reasoning to assimilate even the most alien of singularities that scientists may turn up. Should microscopes examining a soil sample from the third planet’s northern arctic plane next week reveal a Martian version of Horton’s Whoville, there will no doubt be talmudic exegetes aplenty who will calmly conform such a disorderly discovery to the literal narrative of Genesis.
But for those who despair about the postmodern dead end that the history of consciousness has led to (and I include myself among them); for those too undisciplined to reliably integrate yoga, meditation, beginner’s mind or other spiritual technologies into their daily lives (yes, my hand is up); for those who can sleepwalk past a rose, forget to say the Modeh Ani or succumb to anti-mindful pathologies like boredom or killing time (guilty, guilty and guilty) — for us garden-variety broken vessels, a thrilling we-interrupt-this-program bulletin from the scientific magisterium is arguably not too childish to ache for.
Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column will appear weekly in this space. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If the Spaceship Comes
I am in a cult.
Not one with an Indian twist, nor a homegrown one full of fervid believers waiting for a modern-day Shabtai Tzvi to fly us all to a New Jerusalem. No, my cult is more like that of those UFO suicides in Rancho Santa Fe waiting for the spaceship to take them away to a far better place.
My cult is called Hollywood.
Listen. Look closely. Around the city, rolling out of bed as noon creeps across La Brea, the cultists rise — stumbling toward acting classes, to one-minute voice auditions, which take an hour of driving to reach. Sobbing over laptops at Borders, destroying cinematic lives only to revive them by the third act, hoping an element (translation: producer/director/star who counts) might catch sight out of the corner of his eye and ask, “say, what’s that you’re writing?” Meeting with closed-lipped French financiers, droll bondsmen or 26-year-olds with Mammon shining from under their clipped fingernails like Kohanim stocking the effulgence of God.
We type, emote, pitch, hype and train with all our hearts and all our souls and all our beings, hastening that redemptive moment when the spaceship will descend from the Studio Tower and lift us up out of our middle class lives into the Empyrean. It happened to Lana Turner. It happened to the guys who created South Park. It could happen to you.
The realization that Los Angeles is a big, sprawling Spaceship Cult came to me during one of those “Why I Hate This Town” discussions. An actor friend, moving back to Manhattan, complained to me that relationships here just didn’t seem real.
I know the malady. It’s part of being in the cult, like wearing orange shirts. In Los Angeles, appointments are not permitted to be fixed. Instead, they hover, jittery and tentative. Commitments break. Conversations begin on the fly and end in call-waiting beeps or sprints to flashing parking meters. Friends fade in and out of focus, as those whom we swore were intimates now cast their eyes on the next table, where the people carry a better class of cell phone.
And so I hugged my pal and packed him off, mulling the effect my cult was having on my life. I was wondering (again) how healthy this city is for me when my Sunday New York Times arrived with its revelatory special magazine issue — “Money on the Mind.” In one article, a cognitive therapist who specializes in such things, remarks on my generation of “money obsessives,” who he describes as often being “messianics who believe they were put on earth to achieve wealth and distinction.” So! Those of us in Entertainment L.A., as the X-Filiacs say, are not alone.
It’s a generation thing. We late boomers work not for the next world but for the next million. Messianic release has shrunk from the world-historical to the quarterly financial. Beam us up, Alan Greenspan. These days, being in your 30s and not being a millionaire seems somehow irresponsible. Hollywood, the insinuation of the lottery mentality, and especially this bull market have conspired to recklessly ratchet up the bar for our already vaulting ambitions.
In the reigning cult, the present is no longer good enough. The future is where it’s at, baby. Just one more script. One more 20-bagger stock pick. Don’t get too comfortable, dude, ’cause we’re on the way up and out. Bellevue, Wash. Deer Valley, Utah. Nirvana.
Everybody is always already leaving.
But I turned 37 this summer, and my desire to stay is beginning to outstrip my desire to leave. Maybe it’s seeing the baby fat on my son’s stomach contract into hard muscle — or that I can already hear his voice calling “so long, Dad!” as he heads off to Harvard (11 years from now). Maybe it’s that I’ve bought a house and a minivan. Maybe it’s genetic programming — but today, I want today.
I had heard the wisdom in my youth, best put by two of my favorite strains of eastern religion, Zen Buddhism (“The key to enlightenment — when you walk, walk. When you eat, eat.”) and Jewish Hippie Buddhism (“Be here now!”). And in my sojourns in the world of Yeshiva, I came to understand that brachot, a hundred daily blessings, could theoretically root one firmly in a connoisseurship of the present by focusing one’s attention and appreciation of the world before us. Intellectually, I got it, but I always had one eye on the material prize that was my American Jewish Boy birthright — a prize that resided firmly in the future.
Careening toward 40, I find it harder and harder to convince myself that I don’t reside there with it, and worse — I may never!
For the first time, I’m getting comfortable with the idea of staying put. I reach out to my neighbors a little more even as they race by in their 4x4s, their UV1,000,000 sunglasses apparently filtering me out along with those bad solar rays. I tend my garden for my pleasure rather than merely as a clever real estate enhancing ploy. I take classes that I would have labeled self-indulgent a year ago. And I put away the act breakdowns and network notes on Shabbat.
I figure I’m roughly halfway through with life, if everything goes well. And if the spaceship comes — whether it launches from Andromeda, or in the form of a check from Michael Eisner’s vast treasury, or as even as the seed of the House of David — I want it to find me living, not waiting.
Adam Gilad lives and writes in Topanga. If you see him waving in the road, please don’t run him over. He can otherwise be reached at AGGPRODS@aol.com