Of course the dance of disagreement is the primary three-step when readers encounter reviewers in the Penny Press – we all know that going in. But some weeks are more trying – and more exhilarating – than others. Take my most recent batch, for example: on virtually every other page, there was something I either whole-heartedly agreed with in spirit but disliked in execution or something I loved in prose but hated in principle, and all the shadings in between.
In the mighty TLS, Nicholas Kenyon spends a lovely amount of space praising a truly great book, Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, but then he ends his review with a piece of asinine silliness:
Elie believes that technology and recording are the dominating forces in our culture, and they have indeed been a major influence now for more than a century – yet without live performance, constantly renewing, reimagining and indeed reinventing our understanding of Bach’s genius, they would be nothing.
You tell ‘em, gramps! Kids these days and their portable gramophones! They have no respect! If those row-house kids in Laoyatai or Falkirk or Lawrence can’t be bothered to spend three days on a bus to the nearest symphony hall and then a month’s pay on tickets and then three days back home to parents who’ve in the meantime disowned them for their absence, they shouldn’t bother listening to ANY classical music at all! After all, those endless free streams of Bach and Beethoven and Liszt they can get at any time the cellphones that are their sole possessions? They’re nothing, because they’re not live performances. Yeesh.
Likewise the review of Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies by Ruth Franklin over in The New Republic. Franklin is great, and the review is one of the year’s best extended pieces of critical prose, sporting passage after passage of exquisite cold outrage:
Were it the work of anyone else, Subtle Bodies (even the title is beneath him) would simply be a failure: a novel that never quite gets moving and still feels incomplete, with an unsubstantial plot and characters who are either too weird or too banal to merit the time spent contemplating them. But the fact that it is a novel by Norman Rush makes it an interesting failure, not only because it shows how even a great writer can take a terrible misstep, but because it reveals the problems inherent in his fictional method.
It’s a joy to read such book-reviewing prose, but the joy in this case is decidedly mixed, since Franklin couldn’t be more wrong about Subtle Bodies, and who knows how many unwary readers, esteeming her as I do, will read this review and never even bother to try the book?
Likewise over in The New York Review of Books, where Wilton Barnhardt’s absolutely crackerjack new novel Lookaway, Lookaway gets a long, glowing review, just as it should – but the review is by Cathleen Schine, author of the single worst novel in the history of the world (that would be 1995’s The Love Letter), and any reader who knows that will be strongly tempted to associate awful with awful and drop any idea of reading Barnhardt’s book. All the way through the piece, I wanted to yell to those readers: “Pay no attention to her praise! The book is actually good!”
Or back to the TLS, where a reviewer named Daisy Hay writes at quite satisfying length about Robert O’Kell’s enormously stimulating book Disraeli: The Romance of Politics and generally praises it – except for saying that “at times his thesis feels dogmatic,” which is one of those classic book-reviewer no-win traps, akin to “So Mr. Williams, when did you stop beating your wife?” O’Kell has some central, guiding ideas about strands that link Disraeli’s novels with his public life, and he pursues those ideas, and if he didn’t, Hay would have snapped the trap shut from the other end, sniffing about how the author’s ideas don’t ever cohere into anything resembling a central dogma. Disraeli got nailed by that same reviewer’s trick in his own day, and it’s alive and well all these years later.
Naturally, though, even in this welter of ambivalent responses, there are some clear clarion calls. One of them – the most baleful – is sounded elsewhere in the New York Review in just such tones as I feared: the ordinarily wonderful Tim Parks decides to exercise some pure malice upon his readers by not only reviewing but recommending the new English-language translation of Giacomo Leopardi’s 7000-page notebook Zibaldone. In an excess of gleeful hatred, he calls it “one of the key documents in the history of European thought,” and since he’s usually one of our best essayists, it stands to reason some readers will believe him and perhaps give this new edition of the Zibaldone a try. But they shouldn’t, and the piece should have FDA warning labels all over it. The book isn’t a book – it’s a nightmare of fragments and ramblings. It’s a sacrilege to the writing profession. Far from being a key document in the history of European thought, it’s not even a key document in the intellectual life of Giacomo Leopardi. Readers should avoid it (or better yet, buy copies and burn them), and Parks should confine his vicious pranks to bachelor parties where they belong.
Fortunately, some clarion calls are of the positive variety, as is the case over in Time, where the great Lev Grossman turns in an extremely sensitive and knowing short review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s calmly magnificent new novel The Lowland. Grossman is one of the three best fiction critics regularly working today, and in the pages of Time he’s in a perfect missionary perch to reach the demm’d elusive common reader and maybe get him to read this lovely book.
And likewise back in the London Review, where Edmund Gordon delivers a smart, glassy demolition of Colum McCann’s new piece-of-crap novel Transatlantic, pausing first to go for blood when dealing with the author’s penchant for churning out brainless adulatory book-blurbs: “I had read dozens of McCann’s blurbs before I’d read any of his novels: I doubted his ability to compose a meaningful sentence.” Hee.
The oscillation represented here – good reviewers panning good books, horrible writers praising good writers, good books that can’t be good enough, bad books destroyed beautifully, etc. – can be confusing; it can leave the poor storm-tossed reader not knowing where to turn for rock-solid definitive book-judgements. Those readers are advised to add a daily dose of all things Open Letters Monthly to their intellectual diet, stat.