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Civilization is Slow Hard Work: A Review of Lee Oser’s “Old Enemies”

Darrell Falconburg at VoegelinView

Photo by Pop & Zebra / Unsplash

Lee Oser’s new novel, Old Enemies, takes place in a contemporary world dominated by ideology, secularism, technology, mass media, and the politics of outrage. Events of recent memory include widespread riots, the toppling of statues, and the continued decline of civil discourse in America. An aggressive woke ideology has become increasingly mainstream. Attempts to “cancel” heterodox voices, especially if such voices are heard from the political right, are increasingly common. Throughout this novel, Oser satirizes the various ideologies of our current world that thrive on cultural upheaval. Old Enemies is a satirical but equally insightful response to the events of the past few years, as well as a call to conserve and renew our heritage threatened by woke vandalism.

The story follows the narrator, Moses Shea, an ex-journalist who has been blacklisted from the journalism scene in New York. As the story begins, Moses is down on his luck. He now works for the relatively unimportant Consumer Electronics Show Daily News, but he used to work for the esteemed Times’ Times. He now works long hours doing a job he does not like, but he used to be “an important man” reporting for a top newspaper.[1] He is also middle-aged, double-chinned, and single but he used to be young and in love. The reader quickly learns that Moses had the love of his life stolen away from him by a college friend named Nick Carty, who is now a successful businessman. Nick married Moses’ college girlfriend for a short while, but then he deserted her.

In a strange turn of events, Nick gives Moses a phone call and offers him a new job. Not wanting to turn down a new opportunity and salary increase, Moses accepts the offer. Nick is the head of Carthage Corporation, which recently purchased a new supercomputer named Hannibal that plans to manipulate and dominate social media. However, for Nick’s corporation to accomplish this goal and attain a bigger profit, their algorithms need the “poetry of advertising.”[2] Nick tells Moses that his job will be to mentor young people as they come up with slogans for consumer products. He is perfect for this task because he is skilled with languages and an avid reader of the classics. Nick has Moses and the team do their work at what used to be the campus of Saint Malachy College, an old great books school. Nick bought the campus after much of it was burned down following a student-led riot. As the story continues, the plot deepens in complexity and pace. Eventually, Moses finds himself in a difficult situation and back in the national spotlight.

Although it is a contemporary novel about contemporary issues, Oser has the unique ability to transcend the debates of the current moment to speak old truths in new ways. One such truth is imaginatively conveyed in a scene immediately after the narrator arrives at the old campus of Saint Malachy College. Here readers meet Donna, a poor Italian woman who Moses encounters in the rubble of what used to be her son’s dorm. Her son worked hard and earned a full scholarship to college. After entering, however, he joined a radical political organization and now cohabitates with his professor. The dorm has been demolished, and her son’s Saint Anthony medal — which was in the family for generations — is lost somewhere in the rubble. With a metal detector in hand, Donna hopes to recover what her son has lost. Her son’s connection to a religious and cultural heritage was taken by the university, and she wants to get it back. Oser gives readers the image of a person searching for a fragment of cultural debris.[3] She searches for tradition in a world that has increasingly cut itself from the past. As Moses puts it, “[s]ome instinct told her that if she could return to the source, if she could recover what had been lost, things would come right again.”[4] In scenes like this, Oser creates an image that is vivid and thought-provoking and invites the reader to deep spiritual and intellectual contemplation rather than just read the pacing of the novel.

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