Part 3, Chapters 28 Summary
Steffie, one of the many volunteer victims who never got help in the disaster simulation, finally returns home. She receives a letter from her mother; she wants Steffie to go visit her in Mexico City for Easter. Gladney explains that he will drop her off at the airport and her mother will meet her at the other end; the idea of going to a foreign country, flying thirty thousand feet above the ground at supersonic speed, and doing it all alone is sobering for the nine-year-old.
After a few moments of thought, Steffie claims she promised to serve as a volunteer victim again just before Easter, so she cannot go. Gladney says he will write her an excuse. Dana Breedlove, Steffie’s mother, was Gladney’s first and fourth wife; Stephanie Rose (Steffie) was conceived before the marriage fell apart for the second time. Breedlove is secretive about her work, but Gladney knows she reviews fiction for the CIA, a task which leaves her feeling tired and irritable.
Gladney wonders why he is inexplicably attracted to women whose lives are connected to intelligence. Breedlove is a part-time spy; Tweedy comes from a spying and counterspying family and is married to a “high-level jungle operative”; and Janet (Heinrich’s mother) was involved in clandestine currency research before she retired to the ashram. His attraction to Babette was probably relief, at least in part—until her fears propelled her into a “frenzy of clandestine research and erotic deception.”
Gladney has lunch with Siskind and some other colleagues; two of them conduct a rambling dialogue which leads them to the subject of death. Both men used to take great pleasure in imagining their own deaths, and one of them still does. When he is upset or feeling self-pity, he imagines everyone gathered around his coffin, regretting they did not appreciate him more when he was alive.
Gladney does not want to listen to this, as he has his “own dying to dwell upon,” but he does not escape before another colleague insists the only true power in life comes from having a good internist who can ensure that one’s vital internal organs are working properly. Gladney and Siskind finally do escape, and Gladney asks how Siskind’s car crash seminar is progressing.
His students have watched hours of film in which cars crash into other cars, helicopters, motorcycles, trucks, and buses; his students believe these crashes are symbolic of technology hurtling mankind into mass suicide. Conversely, Siskind sees the crashes as “part of the long tradition of American optimism.” Each car crash on film is designed to be better than the last, and technology allows that to happen. The elaborate car crashes staged in movies are part of pursuing a dream. A crash, unlike complicated human passions, is pure and elemental; it is not violent but instead celebrates a perfecting of mankind. Beyond the violence, says Siskind, is “a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”