Saturday, October 30, 2010


Jacoby's Age of American Unreason impresses me less than her earlier Freethinkers, and it probably has less to teach its readers. Although I found myself agreeing with Jacoby most of the time, the book was--for me, anyway--a tedious and surprisingly unenlightening read. Yes, Americans are woefully ignorant of the world around them (including their own country). Yes, the internet has immeasurably increased the reach of junk thought and junk 'science.' Yes, people are reading fewer serious novels and spending more time in front of TV and computer screens than in decades past. And yes, this last development surely will alter, in some unquantifiable, immeasurable manner, the way we think and understand and interpret our lives and world. Yes, yes, yes... I knew all of that before I read Jacoby's book, so I guess I'm pretty far from being this work's ideal reader. But who exactly was this book written for? (Or phrased another way: Why was it written? Why is it justified to kill a tree for this book? [This is a not unreasonable question. Maybe we should ask it of all books.]) Will anyone who doesn't already basically agree with Jacoby take the time to read it? Isn't this book ultimately an extended sermon to the choir--and thus yet another artifact of the culture of atomization and overspecialization it indicts? As I turned the last page, I concluded that this is a lesser work than Freethinkers because it seeks to confirm rather than upset its readers' assumptions. (The section on middlebrow culture might be an exception to this blanket characterization, but that chapter is retrospective. Middlebrow is no longer a 'gateway drug' to high culture. What passes for middlebrow today is the Middle Mind so ably skewered by Curtis White a few years back, a cheap, jejune substitute for high culture.) I come away from Age nodding my head in agreement--and wishing I had spent the last few days reading something else. This book merely confirms my cultural pessimism without either deepening or challenging it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

CANE by Jean Toomer

Cane is an amazing book that deserves a place alongside the works of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe on the top shelf of American Modernism. In terms of African American literature, it should be as widely read as the novels of Wright and Ellison, and it should certainly be as well-known to the general audience as the books of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, which tend to look stodgily traditional when compared to Toomer's stunning formal originality. For Cane is so experimental in form (even in comparison to The Sound and the Fury or the USA trilogy) that one hesitates to even call it a novel. Cane is a fiction in fragments, a miniature Ulysses of African American life. It mixes prose and poetry, fable and melodrama, high lyricism and low speech, to create in its novella-length space a James Michener-size portrait of urban and rural black Americans in the early years of the twentieth century. That Toomer achieves this in under 200 pages is not the least impressive aspect of the work. Cane is like Go Down, Moses as composed by Hart Crane. The poetic lyricism of Toomer's prose, the music of his poetry, and his magisterial deployment of leitmotifs--the sugar cane of the title, black music, moonlight, etc.--all combine to unite a collection of disparate elements that even yet seems to waver on the border of fragmentation, a collapse into anthological hodgepodgery (to coin a word or two). Part of the interest of Cane is exactly this tension between the centrifugal and centripetal, fragmentation and overall form, a tension that comes uneasily to rest in the third section, "Kabnis," the book's longest sustained narrative. This section, as one might expect, synthesizes the previous two parts (urban and rural, traditional and modern), but it's an anxious synthesis, achieved in a narrative as riven by angst and absurdity as any Dostoyevskyan nightmare. Readers in search of easy answers or uplifting morals will not find them here. Cane is a book as cruel and complex as life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

GODS AND MONSTERS by Peter Biskind

The articles collected in Gods and Monsters are a excellent complement to Peter Biskind's definitive history of 1970s Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. While that book focused largely on the personalities and business of film and gave short shrift to art and interpretation, the best pieces here display a highly impressive and politically engaged critical intelligence. Whether he's writing about images of the working class in Seventies films like Saturday Night Fever or Rocky or Paul Schrader's now-forgotten Blue Collar, or angrily slamming The Deer Hunter and the miniseries Holocaust (he scores solid points against both, but his rhetoric is at least a bit over the top), Biskind writes and thinks well enough to demand our consideration even when we may be inclined to harshly disagree. (That's the sign of a damn good critic.) Perhaps the best piece in the book is "The Last Crusade." Originally published in a relatively obscure 1990 book edited by Mark Crispin Miller, this is an extended consideration of the first Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones movies. Biskind's reading is endlessly provocative, arguing persuasively about the powerfully reactionary (infantilizing, anti-sexual, militaristic) nature of these films, the way reactionary meanings are inscribed into the filmic text despite (or, more radically, because of) the political liberalism of the filmmakers. It's a very impressive piece, and all left-liberal fans of these movies should read it and argue with it. Also of note is a Thin Red Line-era profile of director Terence Malick (who of course refused to cooperate in any way) and an interesting review of Woody Allen's Zelig. It occurs to me that Allen is the only American director to emerge during the Seventies who made most of his best films during the Eighties (Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors), thus bucking the downward career trend charted for the other great 70s directors in Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. (In my opinion, Coppola returned impressively to form in Godfather Part Three and Dracula, two wonderfully operatic films; Scorsese never really declined; nor did Altman, as evidenced by his brilliant Secret Honor and his string of great 1990s and 2000s works: Vincent and Theo, The Player, Short Cuts [my candidate for the best film of the Nineties], Cookie's Fortune, Gosford Park.)

There's one more thing that must be said: this book is plagued with annoying typographical errors (at least in the edition I read), a sign of poor quality control at Nation Books.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SEE UNDER: LOVE by David Grossman

In a word: Wow.

See Under: Love is a great, beautiful, terrible, difficult novel--as great and beautiful, in its way, as One Hundred Years of Solitude, but more difficult and terrible. This is my second reading of SUL, and I can state with confidence that you, no matter who you are, will not satisfactorily understand this book after a single reading. You will probably be impressed, intrigued, puzzled, maybe baffled, but you'll have to read it again before you can begin to fully appreciate its complexities. After two readings, I'm still attempting to understand it, still pondering the meanings of the White Room and Bruno's metamorphosis, still learning to 'hear' the novel's ironies and appreciate the implications of its unexpected (and hair-raising) black comedy. Granted, some of this difficulty may be self-inflicted, since I'm trying to interpret See Under: Love in a way that doesn't grasp at a pre-existing interpretive paradigm (psychological, social historical, structuralist (or post-), intertextual) and hold that paradigm up as the one and only key to Grossman's novel. Such keys have a nasty habit of turning into locks and trapping their users inside.

One way to understand See Under: Love is to consider the tension between form and content as this tension increases past the breaking point over the course of the novel's formal metamorphoses. The book is constructed around four separate attempts by the fictional Israeli writer Shlomo Efraim "Momik" Neuman (1950- ), the son of Holocaust survivors, to represent a genocidal reality that he can only know at second-hand. He attempts, in the face of the silences and selective memorializations of his society, to authentically imagine the Holocaust. His efforts are foredoomed (it's a problem of imagining the unimaginable), but the shapes of his four failures constitute the heart (or hearts) of Grossman's novel. The first section, "Momik,"

[At this point in my typing, my six year-old Dell laptop finally gave up the ghost and descended to Dell Hell, where there is much beeping and gnashing of motherboards. I now resume five days later on my new Toshiba:]

...As I was saying before that rude technological interruption, the novel's first section, "Momik," is a relatively harmonious marriage of form and content. A virtuosic example of the kind of free, indirect narration typically associated with Modernist realism (Woolf, Joyce in his more naturalistic moods), it describes, from the 9 year-old Momik's point of view, his attempt to imagine a genocidal reality that is unspoken in his Jerusalem neighborhood in 1959 (unspoken to him, that is; adults speak of the Shoah, but only when they don't think children are listening). The chapter becomes less naturalistic and more Expressionist-tinged as it proceeds, culminating in the bizarre Nazification of the child protagonist, but nothing in this first section prepares us for the second section's wild leap out of realism and into an erotically-charged surrealism descending from later Joyce, Kafka and (of course) Bruno Schulz. Even on a second reading, the "Bruno" section's stylistic shift is shocking, and I suspect that this section defeats many readers. (It also contains the book's most difficult pages.) But if we consider the novel's formal metamorphosis as analogous to Bruno's transformation into a fish--the two are equally unexpected--we might argue that amidst all the stylistic shifting the section's form and content remain largely compatible--bizarre reflections of one another. The third section tries to imagine the Shoah in terms of the multiple mirrors of postmodern self-consciousness. It's a story (by Grossman) about the telling of a story (by the adult Momik) about the telling of a story (by Wasserman). But that grossly oversimplifies the narrational complexity of part three, in which characters question the author, Neigel the Nazi threatens a takeover of the text, and--most significantly--the various scenes of narration flow seamlessly together in a way that dissolves the hard, Structuralist categories beloved of Narratologists. The form of the fourth section can be seen as a last-ditch effort by the forces of order to control the text's chaos. "The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik's Life" attempts to imagine the unimaginable from within the defining form of Enlightenment Rationalism, that ur-text of Reason, the Encyclopedia. The tension cannot hold, and it doesn't. Subjective and surreal content almost immediately explode the supposedly 'objective,' rational form. To note just one, admittedly extreme, example: how can the rectilinear recepticles of reason even attempt to contain the 'scientific' theory and practice of the outrageous Yedidya Munin, a transcendental wanker who puts Alexander Portnoy to shame? When we come unexpectedly upon Munin (and some of the other moments of hair-raising black humor in this novel), we might at first find him out of place, a character who has wandered in from an entirely different kind of book. And further reflection will show us that this is exactly the point. Yedidya Munin and everything else in the "Encyclopedia" is radically 'out of place,' unheimlich. The encyclopedia can no more contain Munin's ferocious comic energy than it can represent the horrendously tragic energy of the Holocaust, an event that might be considered an example of history's dark surrealism, a vast unreason that rises from reason's forms and floods them with blood.

My thoughts are moving into George Steiner territory now, and it might be darkly enlightening to read the relevant essays in Steiner's Language and Silence in conjunction with See Under: Love. The two books seem to have much in common: both consider the Holocaust with respect to matters of language and representation, and both are haunted by a conception of the Nazi genocide as an event in which traditional humanism came to shipwreck. Adorno's work on the intertwining of reason and domination is of course relevant here, too. But again I resist the idea of a Steinerian or Adornoan interpretation of Grossman. The more difficult, more interesting course would be to consider whether and how Grossman's novel goes beyond Adorno and Steiner, exceeds them, bursts their categories as violently as it overflows the Encyclopedia of Kazik. That would be a reading worthy of See Under: Love.

Monday, October 11, 2010

WRITING IN THE DARK by David Grossman

Like David Grossman's fiction, this slim (130 pages) volume of essays and speeches is highly intelligent and deeply moving. It may also be the most beautiful 'writer on writing' book that I've ever read. (Some of the credit for this must go to Jessica Cohen, who translates gorgeously from the original Hebrew.) The first essay, "Books That Have Read Me," is an overview of Grossman's career as reader and writer (through Be My Knife) and a wonderful introduction to this world-class novelist's works and themes. The second piece, "The Desire to be Gisella," is a profound aesthetic statement that is also, inevitably, a political one. Indeed, one of the persistent themes of this collection is the troubling and inextricable intertwining of art and politics, a duality that too often tragically translates into "life and death." The moment of the more pointedly political pieces collected here has passed, but the continuing tragedy that is Israeli and Palestinian politics renders them still sadly relevant. Overall, this is a book to be read and re-read, a brilliant statement of engaged secular humanism, and an essential work for anyone who admires the novels of this future Nobel laureate. (Place your bets now...)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mario Vargas Llosa: Nobel Laureate, Sucker Puncher

The awarding of this year's Nobel Prize to Mario Vargas Llosa surely marks the first time the prize has been given to a writer who has literally blackened the eye of another laureate. The above photograph of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was taken by his friend Rodrigo Moya in 1976 shortly after a public altercation in which Vargas Llosa "sucker punched" Garcia Marquez, blackening his left eye and cutting his nose. The details of the fight, now part of El Boom legend, remain controversial, but the photographer's account, not published until 2007, describes it as much more personal than political. Garcia Marquez has always been an outspoken leftist while Vargas Llosa is a well-known rightist, but we should probably resist the temptation to draw any conclusions from the fact that Llosa punched Gabo in his left eye. (Which means Llosa swings with his right, appropriately.)
Turning from gossip to literature, I will take this opportunity to recommend Vargas Llosa's 1981 novel The War of the End of the World, the book that will probably be considered the great masterpiece of his maturity. Anyone who wishes to understand why this Nobel is richly deserved need look no further. For a completely different side of Llosa, I recommend In Praise of the Stepmother, a decadent erotic novel written during the same decade. And amidst all of today's Llosa praise, we shouldn't forget the deflating remark of that angry young Chilean Roberto Bolano: "Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished."

The Swedes Speak: Mario Vargas Llosa wins the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature

A few minutes ago it was announced in Stockholm that Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has won this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. Unless Carlos Fuentes wins sometime in the future, this will probably be the last Nobel awarded to a writer of the Latin American Boom generation--or El Boom!, as it's known south of my border. Vargas Llosa is a wonderful writer and superb literary craftsman, and he richly deserves this honor. And it's about time the Swedish Academy got its nose out of Europe and gave the award to a writer of the other hemisphere. Congratulations, Mario!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers is an important, essential work of American history that's unfortunately married to a naively unproblematic (and thus very American) concept of Enlightenment rationalism. First the good news: the great value of this book lies in Jacoby's recovery of the forgotten and suppressed history of the American secular ideal and its champions, such almost entirely unknown figures as the early American radical freethinker Elihu Palmer, the orator Ernestine L. Rose (whom Jacoby calls "the Emma Goldman of the 1840s and 1850s"), and the famed "Great Agnostic" Robert G. Ingersoll. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a household name in late 19th-century America, an influential Republican orator and outspoken opponent of organized religion whose public appearances drew large crowds (comparable to those drawn by his ideological opposites, the crusading evangelists). The fact that he is virtually unknown today says much about the troubling marginalization of religious dissenters in the official narrative of American history after about 1750. Jacoby's work thus does the best thing history writing can do: it rescues people from the footnotes and lacunae of traditional history and moves them into the center of a new and more complex version of the American story. It's a marvelous work.

My one serious reservation is directed toward the book's ideological underpinnings rather than it's wonderfully informative surface content. Jacoby's concept of the Enlightenment (which is also that of most American humanists, rationalists, secularists, etc.), owes much to the writings of Paine and Jefferson but seems innocent of the subsequent non-theological critical discourse of Enlightenment. Adorno and Horkheimer's idea that Enlightenment is inextricably entangled in domination or John Ralston Saul's more accessible critique of amoral technocracy in Voltaire's Bastards are just two nonreligious critical viewpoints that might have deepened Jacoby's book had she taken them into account. (I'm guessing that she considered these matters outside the scope of her work.)

Saturday, October 2, 2010


The transcript of an extended interview with David Foster Wallace conducted in early 1996 on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour, Although of Course... is not a bad book and is in fact slightly better than I expected. Lipsky's introductory essay is interesting (especially on the events leading up to Wallace's suicide), and the bare, interview transcript form of the text, which alienated me at first, eventually grew on me. At first I thought the form didn't serve the material. I wanted more background, a prose narrative in which the interview would be a long, rambling, novelistic conversation. But after the first 100 pages, I came to the conclusion that Lipsky served the material (and Wallace) better by presenting a raw, minimally edited transcript. (And of course there's also the matter of length: the book as is runs to just over 300 pages; all of this enclosed in a journalistic prose narrative would constitute a volume of Infinite Jestian length.) The transcript shows us Wallace thinking out loud, rambling intelligently on about entertainment and addiction, the meanings of his most famous book, the faults of his earlier works. At a couple points we witness him delivering perfectly crafted bon mots, as when the subject of crazy girlfriends leads him to remark, "Psychotics, say what you want about them, tend to make the first move." And his sceptical view of "internet democracy" sounds prescient today. There are repetitions and uninteresting patches, and passages of trivia that will only be of interest to the most diehard DFW fan (DFW's opinion of the movie Die Hard, for example), and the transcript has a frustrating way of breaking off just as Wallace begins to speak with brutal frankness about fellow writers (John Updike, Stephen King), but there were enough diamonds in this book's dirt to keep me digging all the way through.

Lipsky intrudes upon the text in several places to underline the fact that this interview conducted 14 years ago is set in a lost world. The bookworld in which DFW wrote and toured is either dead or dying today. The stores that hosted his readings are gone; the novelist's book tour is becoming a thing of the past; even the phrase "celebrity novelist" sounds anachronistic, unless one is speaking of a has-been movie star flogging a ghostwritten tome. In 2010 we've reached the point at which literature has become so unimportant to American culture that we are only permitted one famous literary novelist at a time. (As I write this, it's David Wallace's friend Jonathan Franzen.) It bodes ill for America that our culture can simultaneously support countless right-wing media demagogues, but only one celebrity writer of serious fiction.