The Anthropologist Problem

Jake Maynard


In the official texts that the villagers had permitted me to read, there was never a strict age requirement. What mattered was that the candidates were elders—re-tellers of stories, slow morning walkers, birdhouse watchers, coin-behind-your-ear jokesters, narrators of the way things had been before the war. For years the favored leaders were in fact veterans, and after they were all dead the villagers seemed to groom candidates who’d worked in the mines, probably because they were squinty and hunched but still young enough to survive a few elections.
The word election, I should add, could be considered a false cognate. While it’s similar to the word they use, contest or deathmatch might be more accurate translations. There’s no clear scholarly consensus yet.
The subtlety of the nomination process stood in contrast with the election itself. A few simple asides—Oh Gert, you’re so wise! And healthy as a horse!—and an elder would know to challenge the incumbent. It required perception, in the way that good conversationalists know how long to let silence stretch before speaking. This was my interpretation, at least. It was tough to get a true sense of what the locals thought of anything political, because discussing current affairs was associated with a kind of taboo that can be best compared to sexual promiscuity. The word they have for talking politics translates to “slutting around the issues.” Interestingly, discussing historical events was fine. I heard a villager once refer to a past leader as “barely even an elder,” because he’d ridden a bicycle and had 20/20 vision. To say that about Sally Dent, the incumbent, would be scandalous.
The gist of it was that Alleghenia had honed a politik of intuition and brutality, a nation at the mercy of whichever Hank, Burt, or Tammy happened to take the most Vitamin C before their trip to the quarantine trailer. For an ex-pat, like myself, the enigma was part of the fun. It was useless and unhip to try to imagine the future. You had to live life three inches in front of your face.

Jake Maynard‘s work appears in places like Guernica, Hobart, Catapult, The Pinch, Current Affairs, Slate, and The New York Times. He’s from rural Pennsylvania and won’t shut up about it.