Isn’t Eastern Standard Tribe a neat title? It sounds so nifty, so cool, so exciting, there must be a lot happening behind it. Doctorow has Art, the first-person narrator of roughly half the chapters, spell things out about halfway through the book.
“It’s like this,” I said. “It used to be that the way you chose your friends was by finding the lost like-minded people you could out of the pool of people who lived near you. If you were lucky, you lived near a bunch of people you could get along with. … Chances were that you’d grow up so immersed in the local doctrine that you’d never even think to question it. …
“Now, once ideas could travel more freely, the chances of you finding out about a group of people somewhere else that you might get along with increased. …
“People immigrated here and picked where they wanted to live based on what sort of people they wanted to be with, which ideas they liked best. A lot of it was religious, but that was just on the surface—underneath it all was aesthetics. You wanted to go somewhere where the girls were pretty in the way you understood prettiness, where the food smelled like food and not garbage, where shops sold goods you could recognize. … [T]he tug of finding people like you is like gravity. Lots of things work against gravity, but gravity always wins in the end—in the end, everything collapses. In the end, everyone ends up with the people that are most like them that they can find.” …
“Fast-forward to the age of email. Slowly but surely we begin to mediate almost all of our communications over networks.
“So you’re a fish out of water. You live in Arizona, but you’re sixteen years old and all your neighbors are eighty-five, and you get ten billion channels of media on your desktop. All the good stuff—everything that tickles you—comes out of some clique of hyperurban club-kids in South Philly. They’re making cool art, music, clothes. You read their mailing lists and you can tell that they’re exactly the kind of people who’d really appreciate you for who you are. In the old days, you’d pack your bags and hitchhike across the country and move to your community. But you’re sixteen and that’s a pretty scary step.
“Why move? These kids live online. … Online you can be a peer. You can hop into these discussions, play the games, chord with one hand while chatting up some hottie a couple thousand miles away.
“Only you can’t. You can’t, because they chat at seven AM while they’re getting ready for school. … Their late nights end at three AM. But those are their local times, not yours. If you get up at seven, they’re already at school, ’cause it’s ten there.
“So you start to eff with your sleep schedule. You get up at four AM so you can chat with your friends. You go to bed at nine. ’cause that’s when they go to bed. Used to be that it was stockbrokers and journos and factory who did that kind of thing, but now it’s anyone who doesn’t fit in.
“So you get the Tribes. People all over the world who are really secret agents for some other time zone, some other way of looking at the world, some other zeitgeist. … Like any tribe, they are primarily loyal to each other, and anyone outside of the tribe is only mostly human. That may sound extreme, but this is what it comes down to.
“Tribes are agendas. Aesthetics. Ethos. Traditions. Ways of getting things done. … I know that my Tribesman’s taxi will conduct its way through traffic in a way that I’m comfortable with, whether I’m in San Francisco, Boston, London or Calcutta. I know that the food will be palatable in a Tribal restaurant, that a book by a Tribalist will be a good read, that a gross of widgets will be manufactured to the exacting standards of my Tribe.” (pp. 108–13)
It’s a good rant.
All of the finding like-minded people has not done Art much good, though, because by the time he delivers the rant, he’s been involuntarily committed to a mental health treatment facility. He continues:
“Which is how I got here. I’m a member of the Eastern Standard Tribe. We’re centered around New York, but we’re ramified up and down the coast, Boston and Toronto and Philly, a bunch of Montreal Anglos and some wannabes in upstate New York, around Buffalo and Schenectady. I was doing Tribal work in London, serving the Eastern Standard Agenda, working with a couple of Tribesmen, well, one Tribesman and my girlfriend, who I thought was unaffiliated. Turns out, though, that they’re both double agents. They sold me out to the Pacific Daylight Tribe, lameass phonies out in LA, slick Silicon Valley bizdev sharks, pseudo hipsters in San Franscarcity. Once I threatened to expose them, they set me up, had me thrown in here.” (p. 114)
Art, though, is far from reliable as a narrator. “‘Baby,’ Lucy [a fellow participant in the group therapy session] said, rolling her eyes again, ‘you need some new meds.'” (p. 114) As in Down & Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow tells the story of a man who has made some questionable choices and gotten himself into a tight spot. He lets you know from the very first page of narrative — “Like now as I sit here in my underwear on the roof of a sanatorium in the backwoods off Route 128…” (p. 11) — and the main tension of the story is finding out how he got there and whether he will manage to get himself out, or whether the cumulative costs of his mistakes will overwhelm him.
Five pages later, Art tells his readers, “The theme of this story is choosing smarts over happiness, or maybe happiness over smarts.” (p. 16) But I don’t think that’s any more reliable than Art’s take on time zones or what pulls people together. I think the key question of the novel is whether Art will be able to step outside himself enough to accept the reality of other people, and that the world doesn’t snap crackle and pop to his ideas. A lot of people don’t make that leap. Will he?