December 03, 2019

The Wire Cage Experiment


I've recently been working on a collection of short stories. I've written 5 so far, amounting to about 60 pages. The problem is that to publish them in book form, I need at least 160 pages. Since I write only when I'm inspired, and since I can never predict when inspiration will strike, it could be another year before I pitch the book to a publisher.

I occasionally feel guilty that I don't provide enough entertainment for you guys. Granted, watching the US go down the tubes in the gauchest and most vulgar manner possible, or ridiculing turkeys like Tulsi Gabbard, is very entertaining, but it's of a rather noir variety. So what I'm going to do today is post one of these stories. It's not the best of the lot, and it's also a bit noir, but it has a nice demented flavor to it that I think you guys might enjoy. Here goes:

As a salesman of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, George Walraven enjoyed his job, but in the digital age he was fighting an uphill battle. He liked going door-to-door, talking to people about their lives, and the importance of being well-informed. But most of them didn't want to by the encyclopedia, because they said they could get whatever information they needed online. George immediately pointed out that Britannica had an online paywall; this pitch worked some of the time, but mostly not. Still, he loved the job and didn't want to give it up.

In terms of developing new sales strategies, George was inspired by an episode of Friends, in which an encyclopedia salesman comes to Joey Tribbiani's apartment and tries to sell him a set of encyclopedias. He asks Joey if he ever feels out of it, sitting around with his friends, who are discussing something he knows nothing about. Joey admits this is a frequent occurrence, but says he just can't afford to buy these books. So the salesman asks him how much cash he has on him at the moment; it turns out to be $50. "For $50," he tells Joe, "I can sell you a single volume. What letter would you prefer?" For some reason, Joey picks V. Then follows a rather silly scene in which Joey, sitting around with the Friends, keeps trying to steer the conversation to subjects such as Volcanos, Viet Nam, Vivasection, and other V's.

George loved that episode, and it gave him an idea. In these days of economic hardship, he reasoned, most people simply can't shell out $1,200 for the entire set. But like the salesman on Friends, he could probably get them to buy a single volume. Once he had sold all of the volumes, from A to Z, he figured he might be able to throw an "encyclopedia party," in which each person in attendance represented one letter of the alphabet. And then what? Some kind of party games? He wasn't sure. But he was convinced there was an angle here, one that would enable him to sell more books.

George's wife, a rather attractive blond ten years his junior, was keen on the whole idea, even thinking that if George could sell two sets of A to Z, it might be possible to organize a public competition between the two teams and run it on network TV. It took a few months to make this happen, but finally the show took place: "From A to Z: The War of the Books." Prizes ran from $1,000 to $10,000. First up were the 2 A's. Each person had a buzzer; George's job was to name an A entry, and the person who buzzed first then had to explain the item, say what it was. The two A's were a housewife from Cincinnati, and an insurance salesman from Topeka. The winner would be the first to give ten correct answers.

"What is the Aeneid?" George asked them. Brittany, the housewife, was quick on the draw. "Long poem by Virgil providing a foundation myth for Roman civilization," she said. "Right you are!" exclaimed George. "Next, what is abalone?" Lorenzo, the insurance salesman, pressed the buzzer and declared, "A type of processed meat." The audience was convulsed with laughter. "No," said George; "you're thinking of baloney, which would be a B question. Brittany?" "A type of sea snail, or mollusc," she responded. "OK," said George; "the score is now 2 to 0."

George proceeded to run through Aardvark, Aeolian harp, All Hallows Eve, and so on, until Brittany was the victor with a score of 10-5, racking up winnings of $1,000 (so far). The audience applauded, and she and Lorenzo retired from the stage. The B's were up next, but before that contest could take place, someone in the audience stood up. "Is this game rigged?" he called out.

"Wha?" George exclaimed. "Of course not." "Abalone is processed meat?" said the man. "Are you shitting me? Remember the show Twenty-One, the big scandal? Contestants were fed the correct answers, including Charles Van Doren, a professor at Columbia. People will do anything for money."

"Sir," said George, "you need to sit down. This game is not rigged, and you are completely out of order."

"But that denial is exactly what that earlier generation of execs at NBC said!" he cried. At this point, Security was called in, but the man had apparently come with a bucket of rotten vegetables, which he skillfully deployed against the officers. Somehow, this triggered a mob psychology response, with people choosing up sides: rigged or not rigged. A total melee ensued. Out of nowhere, a man in a Tarzan outfit swung through on a rope, and a woman thrust a Boston cream pie in George's face. "Criminals!" she screamed. "Thugs!"

All hell broke loose. The mob was able to overwhelm the Security guards, in some cases banging their heads against the floor. People picked up on the cry of "Criminals!" and "Thugs!", tore up the seats of the studio, attacked the contestants, and threw volumes of the encyclopedia at each other. The madness lasted for over an hour, at which point everyone stopped, as if on cue, dusted themselves off, and left the building.

"This may not have been such a good idea," George said to his wife, through gobs of Boston cream pie.

Of course, most of the melee was caught by various people on their cell phones, and the footage was used on the late-night news report. The anchor said something like, "A riot was unexpectedly triggered this evening at the opening of an NBC quiz show called 'From A to Z' by a defrocked priest, the Rev. Pierson J. Flanksteak. Rev. Flanksteak, without any evidence, accused the network of rigging the show, which resulted in an outbreak of mob violence. The audience went wild, and the riot went on for over an hour. When later questioned by the police as to why he made the accusation. Rev. Flanksteak said he was out to demonstrate Freud's theory that civilization was but a thin veneer over a massive 'iceberg' of barbarism."

"From A to Z" was subsequently cancelled; instead, all of the networks hosted panel discussions of Freud's theory, what had happened, whether Flanksteak (now sitting in jail) was a lunatic or a genius, and so on. It was all hot air; most of the TV audience, and the media, correctly concluded that these "experts" were fools. George quit his job with Britannica and went on to write a best-selling book, From A to Z: The Riot at NBC. The promotional flyer contained the following passages:

"The Rev. Flanksteak set out to validate Freud's notion that civilization was a shaky cover on top of raw, irrational emotions. He had no evidence that the program was rigged, and in fact, it wasn't. What he actually demonstrated was that the public can be made to go crazy by the use of certain charged words--'rigged' being one of them. 'Post-modern' is another. My own theory is that Americans are badly squeezed by the inexorable disintegration of their way of life, such that when these words are uttered, huge amounts of energy are suddenly released. This is important information for us to have about the fragile condition of the American people. Flanksteak now sits in jail, whereas I think he more correctly deserves to receive the Presidential Medal of Honor.

"I don't think, as a nation, that we can afford to be conducting our daily affairs while sitting on a kind of semantic volcano. What I propose is that we set up controlled experiments on the release of energy. I have consulted with Senator Riggins about this, and we are going to arrange for such an experiment two weeks from today. For this, we need 1,000 volunteers. Interested parties should sign up at the NBC studios as soon as possible."

The signup sheets filled up very quickly. NBC constructed a huge wire cage to house the participants. On the appointed day, they were all frisked for weapons and then locked inside the cage. George stood outside of it with a megaphone. "Is everyone ready?" he called out. "Ready!" came the response. "OK," he said; "here goes:"


The people inside the cage went nuts. They began to scream, tear their hair, bite each other, and beat each other up. Many got down on all fours and barked like dogs. It went on for thirty-five minutes, until they ran out of steam. Exhausted, most of them were lying on the floor. Some were bleeding.

"Well done," George called out on the megaphone. "Now let's try another phrase:"


Again, this set off a massive reaction of rage and violence, but since most of these folks were rather tired from the first round, it lasted only twenty minutes this time.


George bombarded them with these charged words until there wasn't a person left standing. The medical teams and ambulances that were parked outside now hauled most of the mangled participants off to local hospitals, where hundreds of them spent a week or more in recovery.

As would be expected, George was in high demand on the TV talk shows. The typical first question he was met with was, "Given the disaster of the wire cage experiment, what do you plan to do next?" George's answer was always the same:

"Bob [or Freddie, or Chrystal], this was no disaster. As a pilot project, it was a great success. It revealed the depths of negative energy stored in the American psyche--energy we are going to have to drain, if this country has any future. You know, we are constantly hearing about the need to 'get America back on track'. Well, this is how to do it. Think of it as draining the pus of an infection. If a bunch of words can push the American public right over the edge, then it's safe to say that we are dealing with a whole lotta pus--metaphorical pus, infecting the body politic. Myself, I'm looking forward to Wire Cage Experiment No. 2."

And the rest is history. As the "pus" was drained from the American people, a certain (limited) restoration of sanity settled over the land. "I think it's safe to say," George finally announced, "That we have made America great again."

(c)Morris Berman, 2019