John Sack is a human being and wants everybody to know it, though nobody seems to have questioned it. He presents his credentials in great detail, beginning with the first night of his parents' honeymoon and the events leading up to his conception, then presenting a rather detailed account of how he put himself together during the next nine months before his (not entirely voluntary) entry into the outer world. He recalls vividly the voice of his mother's doctor (one Loizeaux) saying "clamp" to welcome him to a world of efficiency and authors. He remembers the slap that summoned him to life as though it still hurt. "I wasn't born that day," he comments, "I was drafted."
All of this elaborate introduction a la Laurence Sterne begins a narrative that wanders almost as widely if not quite as elegantly or engagingly as "Tristram Shandy": partly autobiography but mostly polemic. Although the publisher calls "Fingerprint" an autobiography, the author leaves great, gaping holes in the account of his life, focusing on incidents that support his polemic and supplementing them with anecdotes and observations that have little to do with his life except that he read them somewhere and was sufficiently impressed to take a clipping or a note.
His polemic, which is what "Fingerprint" is really about, is a diatribe against what he calls "efficiency," though he sometimes means "conformity"--a difference, at least, of nuance. He associates this vice particularly with military life, into which he was drafted some time after being drafted into life itself. With his last name, it was inevitable that he should acquire the nickname "Sad" during his sojourn in Korea and, by his own rather sketchy account, he did everything he could to live up to the implications of that name.
He returned to military life as a writer during the Vietnam episode and was no more favorably impressed; in keeping with his overall theme, he describes it (not inaccurately) as a war of machines against people.
He also associates "efficiency" with various forms of gainful employment, with the assertion that two and two are four (which he finds sometimes true but, on the whole, unacceptable) and with air transportation--emotionally, one of the chief targets of his rhetoric. His remarks on air travel, supported with what sound like a whole drawer full of items from newspaper clippings, make it psychologically inadvisable to read "Fingerprint" (as I did) while flying. Those who read it on trains may enjoy it more; railroads are not quite the monsters of efficiency they used to be.
Sack's complaint against efficiency (stripped of its rhetoric, which is often splendid) boils down to a charge that is hard to refute but sometimes dubiously relevant: it is inhuman. That is to say, it is not like John Sack or congenial to him; it is mechanical, not organic. It was not generated, like John Sack, amid moonlight and tenderness, and it did not develop organically as his little body did before Loizeaux shouted "clamp" and administered the traumatic slap. In fact, it is well symbolized by the slap and the clamp. It subjects human beings to processes and situations that are dull, distasteful, dangerous and sometimes deadly. But mostly, it is not organic; it is assembly lines where your eyes may be splashed with acid or you can die of boredom; it is planes that fall out of the air because of a loose screw; it is armies with all their organized madness, and pediatricians who insist on feeding and bowel movements by a rigid timetable. It is undeniably awful--but is it all a matter of efficiency?
Sometimes, Sack's complaint seems to be directed not really at efficiency but at imperfect efficiency; planes that fall from the sky are not really efficient--nor, for that matter, are armies that regulate the color of caps on soldiers' tooth powder (denying them, in the process, their God-given right to brush with paste if they choose). Frequently, Sack's complaint is really against tyranny (including, of course, the tyranny of machines and of people who live like machines, or who make others live like machines).
In a sense, his complaint is directed against life itself, which is sometimes ruthlessly efficient. Sack knows that life is a competitive process; he acknowledges the fact in the section that deals with his experiences as a boy scout:
"We weren't in any arcadia but in some frightful jungle, the lair of a red-toothed nature. Our holy oaks were the hostages of the die-all viruses in their trunks and the gall-wasp eggs in their twigs: in their monstrous growths. The bark beetles ate the xylen, inscribing it with cuneiform, and the woodpeckers took off the bark to get at the glutted beetles. The little infant acorns, the filbert weevils ate, the white-tailed deer ate the acorns and the filbert weevils, too, and each wretched oak had a cloak of murderous mistletoe like Medea's poisonous robe."
The trouble with competitive situations (such as life) is that the more efficient organisms, not necessarily the nicest, are most often the ones that survive and beget in their own likeness. While the law of entropy tells us that the inorganic world tends constantly toward chaos, the law of evolution tells us that organic life tends toward higher and higher forms of organization. Sack himself is such a higher form, and, whether he likes it or not, a member of social structures that organize still further the organisms that nature has already developed to a high degree of efficiency. In a sense, his complaints resemble what one of his beard follicles might have to say about his efficient habit of shaving.
Still, he does write well and there is a germ of truth in what he has to say. Our society is too often inhuman (often through human error) and our machines, from jets to auto assembly lines, should be more accommodating to human foibles. In an age when we are teaching computers to become more and more "user-friendly," we may hope to see better days ahead--speeded, perhaps, by amorphous howls such as "Fingerprint." Meanwhile, what we have here is essentially a plea for a little more sloppiness--or built-in tolerance for sloppiness in our business and social life. When his theme is redefined in this way, perhaps it appears more appropriate that John Sack has written a rather sloppy book.