Posts from December 2014
December 13th, 2014
There are some years when the practitioners of fiction seem almost embarrassed by their profession – not because that profession still hasn’t turned its back on own charlatans, but rather because it sometimes seems like the reading public itself is increasingly turning its back on their profession in favor of pap. I’ve lost count of how many times in the last few years I’ve read some jaded op-ed or blog post lamenting the death of the novel, this time doomed not by TV or the Internet but by the rapid erosion of your average adult’s ability to pay attention to anything longer than a tweet or more complex than a YA novel. But if there’s some truth to that (I now know dozens of of adults who openly admit that all they read these days is fiction written for children – although even the bravest of them no longer try to justify this degradation to my face with the blasphemous follow-up of “I’ve read everything else …”), it certainly isn’t reflected in the Best Fiction of 2014! Each of these wildly separate novels has one thing in common with the others: confidence, not only in their own craft but in the architecture of fiction itself, as vast and elaborate as their builders can make it. Here are the best examples of that craft in 2014:
10. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) – Waters’ story of a staid mother and daughter in post-WWI London forced for economic reasons to take in a young married couple as boarders is, much like a handful of other choices on this list, deceptively quiet at its outset, a remarkable small-scale drama that Waters steadily complicates. This is the author’s most elegant and confident work – a joy of subversion.
9. The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate) – There are a couple of examples on our list this time around that display not just confidence but elaborate confidence, and Hensher’s is the first of them, a great sprawling thing dramatizing the subtleties of ostracization in, I think I counted, five different time periods (and in many soft gradations inside each of those periods) and all of it coming together in the end in a great symphonic superstructure exceeding anything Hensher’s ever done.
8. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown) – I’ve been a fan of Ferris’s work almost since the moment when I stopped being an enemy of it. His low-hanging-fruit workplace-novel debut, Then We Came to the End, filled me with the same combination of ennui and contempt that I’ve felt in bookstore break rooms over the decades, hearing co-workers gripe and whine. But I thought his second novel, The Unnamed, was incredibly strong, a masterpiece of modern personal dislocation. That dislocation them certainly continues in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a winningly garrulous story of a hapless dentist whose life is gradually and mysteriously appropriated online.
7. The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn (Pegasus) – It’s certainly a stunning act of authorial confidence to write a Tudor-era novel with hardly a Tudor to be found anywhere in it, but Dunn not only does this but does it magnificently, telling the captivating, raw human story of a strong-willed young woman who marries into the rising Seymour clan and eventually finds herself at the heart of a wrenching scandal. You can read my full review here
6. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf) – Sergeant Lester Ferris finds himself on the dilapidated cut-adrift former colonial possession of Mancreu in Harkaway’s sharp and unforgettable novel about heroism and life-saving. Lester’s adrift himself when he encounters Harkaway’s most hilarious creation to date, a young boy so smart and pop culture-saturated that he’s effectively superimposed his own fantasy world over the rotting hulk of Mancreu. The chemistry Harkaway creates between these two quickly spreads to the whole of this utterly marvelous book.
5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner) – The threat of cliches that hovers around the premise of Doerr’s book – a blind French young woman and a technically-oriented German young man, tossed together by the Second World War – very nearly disinclined me to read it. I was drawn in by the lyricism of Doerr’s prose, and the complexity of what Doerr was doing – the confidence of it all, again – kept me eagerly reading his unabashedly, gloriously conservative novel to the end.
4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House) – As with Philip Hensher’s book, so too here: hyper-abundant narrative confidence. Mitchell returns to the storytelling profusion that won him such renown with Cloud Atlas, joyously elaborating an intentionally disjointed story of two rival sects of immortals and the young woman who finds herself caught between them and then gradually, impeccably drawing the whole mass of it to a precisely-controlled and masterful conclusion.
3. Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – We turn from sprawling symphony to intimate sonata in Robinson’s stunningly moving novel anchored in small-town Iowa and explicating the torturous, groping love between hapless preacher John Ames and his much-younger and much-wilder wife Lila. Robinson has been on the good and bad sides of these Stevereads lists, but this book is a calm and questing demonstration of genius.
2. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions) – It would be too easy to describe Galgut’s beautiful fictionalization of the years E. M. Forster spent in India as “Forterian” (I know this because roughly 200 book-reviewers unhesitatingly did just that), and it would sell the book short, too. Actually, our author is here taking several narrative risks all his own – almost always with praiseworthy results.You can read my full review – and note how much my appreciation grew with this re-reading – here
1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press) – Alameddine’s novel is a miracle of understatement. Its heroine Aaliyah, is thoroughly bookish in a way every one of Alameddine’s bookish readers will instantly recognize, and Alameddine steadfastly refuses to load her story with epiphanies or princes charming. The story is immeasurably stronger for this restraint, and the book lingers a long time in the memory, mainly because we feel that we know Aaliyah and have known her all our lives. You can read my full review of this, the Best Novel of 2014, here.
May 21st, 2014
Naturally, Scott Sherman’s well-done article in The Nation on the parlous state of the university press grabbed my attention. Sherman writes about the roughly 100 university presses in the United States but concentrates especially on the vast majority of them that don’t rest on “the feathery cushion of an endowment” but rather face the hurly-burly of the commercial publishing world. These presses (and even their more well-endowed brethren) are increasingly squeezed in the twin vises of escalating production costs and the brutal egalitarianism of the Internet, and the article caught my interest because I can scarcely imagine my own literary landscape without books published by academic presses. By ironic coincidence, I opened that issue of The Nation immediately after closing the latest catalogues from both Yale University Press and Harvard University Press, and while I was paging through them, I was struck, as I always am, by how many of the titles in those catalogues cannot possibly expect anything even remotely resembling a general readership.
Such books are important. As Sherman points out, the bibliographies of the runaway bestselling works of history and biography that appear every winter are full of the listings of such books, but it’s more than that: quite often (and who would know better than I? Who reads more of these books than I do? Indeed, in the last seven years, who’s reviewed more of them than I have?) they’re good, stimulating, mind-expanding reading in their own right. They’re the fruits of long study done for inquiry’s sake rather than for hope of gain the marketplace – and since the marketplace can be quite dumb, the existence of an entire separate venue, where books can be researched, written, and even sometimes sold without the kind of market-metrics that now rule the deliberations of the big Manhattan publishing houses, is an unquestionable good for our collective intellectual life.
It’s troubling to read that this alternate venue is feeling endangered, and, thanks to Sherman’s diligence, it’s also fascinating to read about one of the inequalities at the heart of the system – something I hadn’t thought of before:
A crucial question faces university presses and the universities themselves: Who will pay for the dissemination of scholarship? University presses provide a number of vital functions for the academy as a whole – starting with the fact that, by and large, young professors achieve promotion and tenure based on monographs they publish. But the funding for the entire system is lopsided. If the University of Colorado Press publishes a monograph by a young professor at Dartmouth that enables that scholar to obtain tenure, then the University of Colorado Press, with its very modest budget, is in effect subsidizing Dartmouth, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion as well as its own small press. In his New Media & Society essay, [Phil] Pochoda noted that approximately 100 university presses are subsidizing “at least 1,000 other universities and colleges who are free riders on a system that they rely on but do not support.”
And as is my typical pattern when delving into the Penny Press, I moved straight from feeling troubled to feeling outraged – this time by turning to the latest Harper’s, which has a long review by James Lasdun of Joshua Ferris’s new novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. At first I thought the pairing seemed somewhat natural, if gimmicky: a big part of Ferris’s novel deals with online stalking and identity theft, and last year Lasdun wrote an excellent account of being stalked online by a former student. Ideally, you always want to get advice about a new car from a car expert, but lacking that, I suppose it makes a gimmicky kind of sense to turn to somebody who’s been run over by the same make and model number.
The piece quickly started to disappoint. Lasdun lavishes lots of hifalutin praise on Ferris’s first novel, which was a tiresomely derivative one-trick performance – but overpraising that work is a useful tactic if you’re going to go on to paint a portrait of Art in Decline, which is the main hallmark of hatchet jobs like this one: it can’t be that an author’s latest book didn’t suit you, no – it’s got to be that the author’s latest work is the last piece of evidence we need that the author has degenerated to the point where a public execution would be a mercy to all concerned. This kind of Wagnerian overreaction runs strong in some critics – especially the ones who are also academics. One imagines it compensates a bit for all those weekday evenings of falling asleep at 9 while grading papers.
It isn’t anywhere near true. Ferris’s second novel was enormously good – complicated thought-provoking, and despite what Lasdun says, extremely well-controlled throughout. But it hardly maters: the second book had to be criticized because it wasn’t the first book – and if that was its sin, how much worse must the third book be? Long before he actually started talking about it, I knew Lasdun was working his phlegmatic way up to calling To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the worst book ever written. It’s a complex work with a lot of moving parts – by an author who very clearly intends to march to the beat of his own drummer for the whole of his career – so I haven’t been expecting it to receive the unmixed praise usually poured out on equally intelligent but easier books.
But even so, I wasn’t prepared for one part of Lasdun’s takedown. He starts this part fairly innocuously, with some plot summary:
It [the book] tells the story of a dentist named Paul O’Rourke, who becomes the target of a campaign of online stalking and identity theft that seems, as it progresses, to be motivated by a general fixation on Judaism, and a particular obsession with the connections between anti-Semitism and the behavior of Jews toward their enemies, from biblical times to the present.
Then came this:
I was recently the target of an uncannily similar campaign, with similar menacing emails, similarly embarrassing online postings in my name, and a similar underlying obsession with Jews, particularly in their hoary double role as the world’s victims and oppressors. “No more about the 6 million,” writes O’Rourke’s stalker, “until OUR losses and OUR suffering and OUR history have finally been acknowledged.” Mine wrote: “jews in america need to shut up, the crazy shit that comes out of your mouths spreads far and wide in a city filled with blacks, muslims and asians who’ve had it.” O’Rourke goes to Israel in an attempt to make sense of his strange ordeal. I did the same.
Followed immediately by this:
In the end there isn’t much to be said about these coincidences except that they confirm a feeling of mine that Judaism and Israel are no longer cultural or geographic phenomena so much as regions of the human brain, like Wernicke’s area or the hippocampus, where some pervasive psychoses get processed.
Even on my fifth re-reading, I honestly don’t know which irritates me more, the cheapness of the accusation or the weaseling way Lasdun immediately tries to distance himself from it. “There isn’t much to be said about these coincidences except” followed by two lines of quasi-conceptual mumbling – when Lasdun knows full well that in the previous paragraph he wasn’t intending to point out “coincidences” – he was intending to call Joshua Ferris a plagiarist. Wernicke’s area – ye gods.
I’m hoping somebody writes a letter to Harper’s in defense of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and I’m hoping that somebody doesn’t have to be the abashed and embarrassed author himself.
And in the meantime, I’m hoping readers ignore the review and buy the novel; it’s really, really good.
December 22nd, 2010
If cynicism was the besetting sin of the Worst Books of 2010, we’re all the more fortunate that cynicism has a counterpart in literature as well as life. The counterpart, of course, is truth, and just as a novel born of calculation and greed can never be anything but a weak little lie, so too a novel forged of faith, a work of fiction born of the author’s best groping attempts to be true – to their own heart while writing, to the world as they see it or would like to see it, even to their neuroses – is the only thing that stands a chance of being truly great.
I read a great many novels in 2010 – far more than I usually do. The world of self-published work blossomed open for me this year to an extent hundreds of times greater than last year. When I add to that all the mainstream novels I read, all the online fan fiction I read, and the handful of manuscripts I was privileged to see, I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that my reading now encompasses all of fiction out there being written in English. I see all kinds of it, and I work hard to maintain that spring in the mental knees, that openness that readers of fiction need. The genre has conventions, after all, and as pusillanimous critics have been pointing out for nearly 400 years, those conventions are very nearly as narrow as a sonnet’s. Things must happen, they must mean something to each other, and they must work together to move the reader. If they don’t, the book is no good. If they don’t because the author considers himself too smart to worry about it, the author is no good.
No, these are common conventions here, and they are gloriously relevant to human life, and the writers who take them seriously and excel at their manipulation can look upon ‘open-form’ avant-garde poseurs with well-earned pity. This is the game as Chaucer played it, and Cervantes, and Fielding and all the other immortals we read today, and it’s in the mastering of the game that they became immortal. Mark my words: the names here listed have a clear, certain shot at that immortality, if they don’t weaken. Some of these novels are more stylistically challenging than others, but that’s not a disqualification. I myself helped in the making of two of them, but that’s not a disqualification either – good is still good, and all these books are very, very good.
10. Witz by Joshua Cohen – Some of you were surprised that I would so enjoy Cohen’s massive, discursive novel about the Last Jew in the World, especially since on some levels (its non-stop riffing, its intentionally bratty prose, its length) it appears to resemble Adam Levin’s The Instructions, which I hated (indeed, Cohen himself wryly pointed out the similarities in a review of Levin’s book). As stated, though, the execution is everything, and Cohen’s work here is everything The Instructions could only dream of being: smart, controlled, thoughtful, and genuinely funny. This is about as bitterly wry a minority as I’ve read in fifteen years.
9. You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin – The first of the explosively good debut novels on our list, Baldwin’s story is an elegant double helix in the nature of The GoldBug Variations: middle-aged flailing memory researcher Victor Aaron is confronted after his wife’s death with a series of index cards she wrote about their life together – descriptions that are tauntingly different from his own recollections. Even the book’s occasional flaws are not born of arrogance or timidity, and the strengths are freakishly strong.
8. Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen – A tangled and gorgeous John Cage symphony of a novel, Olsen’s book is a virtuoso interweaving of twelve separate narratives, done much in the manner of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas but without that book’s occasionally empty grandstanding. This is another one of those novels most people would assume I wouldn’t like, until they actually read it.
7. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray – Like Witz, this is a genuinely funny novel that will make you laugh out loud at the least appropriate things – in this case starting with the single funniest death-scene since Hamlet’s. The novel is set in an all-boys Catholic prep school (in Dublin), and as a parolee from just such an institution (in America), I was perhaps destined to love this book, but the acid-yet-tender writing would have guaranteed it anyway.
6. Easy For You by Shannan Rouss – This assured, very well-written debut story collection is everything I should hate: it’s completely contemporary (it’s set in, ecch, L.A.), it’s entirely domestic (pregnancies, infidelities, divorces, etc), and it’s a story collection instead of a novel. But none of that matters in the face of prose this good and narrative this intelligent. I was surprised and wholly captivated.
5. Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman – This riveting story of a murder, an exile, and an eventual reunion has a cipher at its heart (the eponymous main character), and you’d imagine that would be fatal, but no: again, this is a fiction debut (the author is a published poet) that knows what it’s doing with a certainty and beauty that sweeps all objections away. This story of a young man who flees Africa with a cloud hanging over him could easily have turned maudlin in less talented hands, but instead it’s spellbinding.
4. Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman – Even Aciman’s wondrously good Call Me By Your Name was no preparation for the sheer heft of this story of two affected young New Yorkers in love. There are huge swaths of brilliant prose here, some of the best evocations of love’s deliriums to be written in the last hundred years.
3. Under the Small Lights by John Cotter – The pitch-perfect dialogue and fine descriptive brush-strokes of this debut novella (the author is a published poet) are only its two strongest recommendations., This story of four affluent, feckless Connecticut young people in love and lust also brims with the kind of interlinear intelligence worthy of Burgess and a handful of walk-on characters worthy of Horton Foote.
2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter – As a sage critic at the Historical Novels Review Online wrote of this frontier story of Meriwether Lewis, “The characters here leap off the page, vibrantly living their lives, reading their books, worrying their worries, and the end result is nothing less than wonderful. Urgently, wholeheartedly recommended.”
1. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris – This second novel by Ferris – the haunting story of a man who’s occasionally compelled (by a disease? by a mania? nobody knows for sure) to walk and keep walking until he physically collapses – is a pure demonstration of the American can-do spirit. Not that the American can-do spirit has much to do with The Unnamed (although Ferris’ portrait of his main character’s desperately coping family is the best thing in the book), but it has everything to do with the open-mindedness of Stevereads, where an author whose debut was featured one year on the Year’s Worst could later feature on the Year’s Best solely by dint of writing a ferociously good novel. Is there similar hope for the wretched creatures on this year’s Worst list? Tune in next year to find out!
January 26th, 2010
When I started this week’s New York Times Book Review, I was certain my main frustrations with it would come from some of the main pieces. The lead piece, by Walter Isaacson, reviews two books on American presidential power – one by the insufferably pompous Garry Wills and the other by the nation’s foremost unindicted co-conspirator, the fascist lapdog John Yoo. A certain recipe for agitation, yes? But no: Isaacson is such a fair reviewer, and here (as in his books) he employs such a calming tone that I ended his review feeling not agitated but only pleasantly informed as to his opinions (although he’s dead wrong to be so even-keeled about Yoo’s book Crisis and Command, as damning and dangerous a book as has ever been produced in America).
(The whole piece was helped considerably by the stark and effective cover illustration by Viktor Koen)
But I was right: after that, the going got distinctly rough. Hilary Mantel, author of the fantastic novel Wolf Hall, reviews Alison Weir’s new book about Anne Boleyn, The Lady in the Tower – and is bafflingly forgiving of Weir’s notorious failings in her chosen profession, as when Mantel allows:
Doubts have already been cast on Weir’s assumptions; the historian John Guy has recently suggested that two sources she took to be mutually corroborating are in fact one and the same person. This doesn’t invalidate her brave effort to lay bare, for the Tudor fan, the bones of the controversy and evaluate the range of opinion about Anne’s fall.
Except that’s exactly what it does: it invalidates her efforts. Guy didn’t just suggest that Weir had ineptly handled her research (a charge I and many others have been laying against her since the start of her career), he proved it, and it wasn’t hard to prove. Certainly it fits with every other history I’ve ever read by Weir; her book on the Princes in the Tower has more angry marginalia by me than it does actual typed words by her. (Of course, Mantel might have mounted a better defense of the book if one-goddam-HALF of her allotted space hadn’t been given to a pointless, juvenile picture of Anne Boleyn, as if the people who don’t know what she looked like care what she looked like, and as if the people who do know what she looked like need reminding of what she looked like)
Things got no better when I read the ridiculously tossed-off half-page review Steve Coates gave of David Malouf’s Trojan War novel Ransom – in fact, they got much worse, since I had some skin in that particular game: not only had Sam Sacks, my colleague at Open Letters, recently reviewed the book with greater length and far, far greater acumen, but I’d reviewed it myself, here at Stevereads. I liked it a lot less than Sam did, but even so, it deserved better than a tired old tag like “the endless power of myth,” which is about the best Coates can give it. When I read an almost-weightless little half-page like this, I always wonder who exactly considers it better than not mentioning the book at all.
The answer to ‘when it almost nothing better than nothing’ is much clearer when the writer of the almost-nothing is famous in his own right, as is the case with Jay McInerney’s blinking, ridiculous piece on Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which gets summarized thusly:
Tim Farnsworth literally walks out of his office one cold winter day, the victim of an uncontrollable locomotive impulse. It has happened before. He can’t stop walking. Really.
In case that ‘literally’ and that ‘really’ weren’t sufficient, it should be pointed out that the protagonist of Ferris’ new book suffers a compulsion that makes him walk until he can’t walk anymore. God is my witness.
I’m starting to wonder if the inordinate fixation virtually all the reviewers of this book have exhibited upon the raw mechanics of its plot (Wyatt Mason being a distinct but lamentable exception!) isn’t a sure sign that Ferris is playing a deeper game than any of them realize. I read The Unnamed and certainly believe this is the case, but readers of the Book Review will amble through McInerney’s summary gathering a vaguely negative impression of the book, so a sad majority of them will never bother to find out for themselves.
But as frustrating as that is (and one can only guess how frustrating it must be for Ferris himself – The Unnamed bears distinct signs of having been a fairly brutal book to conceive and write), none of it held a candle to the issue’s towering inferno of imbecility – located, as it almost always is, in the concluding Essay.
This one is by Jennifer Schuessler, and it’s about boredom in the book world:
If you read a lot of book reviews, there are certain words that tend to crop up with comforting, or maybe it’s dismaying, regularlity. Lyrical. Compelling. Moving. Intriguing. Absorbing. Frustrating. Uneven. Disappointing. But there is one word you seldom encounter: boring. It occurred a mere 19 times in the Book Review in 2009, and rarely as a direct description of the book under review.
“This isn’t because books sent out to reviewers never turn out to be boring (Trust me on this one),” Schuessler informs us. “Rather boredom – unlike its equally bland smiley-faced twin, interest – is something professional readers, who are expected to keep things lively, would rather not admit to, for fear of being scolded and sent back to the Weekly Reader.”
Schuessler then goes on to play a quick little game with the word ‘bore’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, to haul in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift narrator (who’s writing a book on boredom), and to drop the term thaasophobia (fear of, you guessed it, boredom), all pit-stops on her way to wondering if maybe boredom isn’t actually (thwack palm on forehead) good for us.
In other words, she writes a very boring essay.
And I wouldn’t have minded this so much (the NYTimes Book Review Essay is often, almost contractually, boring), were it not for the fact that the piece is not only derivative but, literarily speaking, dumb. The reason you don’t often read the word ‘boring’ in a book review isn’t because ‘professional’ readers don’t want to be psychoanalyzed; it’s because they’ve realized that a boring book usually isn’t worth reviewing. Something irritating? Sure. Something sublime? Certainly. But something just plain lifeless? Schuessler might not have the common editorial sense to pass over such things in telling silence, but most of the rest of us ‘professional’ readers sure as Hell do. And then there’s the myopia of the thing! To put it mildly, boredom has been a much-mined subject in literature in the last fifteen hundred years – a writer who can only bestir themselves as far as Saul Bellow deserves to be stripped of their epaulets. And the reason why the piece is so shallow (assuming here that this Schuessler person is, in fact, capable of much deeper work – always my madcap assumption until proven wrong) – why an essay on boredom in literature in the country’s most influential book review doesn’t even mention, say, the Russians and the rather prominent Russian novel that’s entirely about the subject? Well, that reason is the least-common-denominator mind frame of the Book Review these days. And that’s in a whole ‘nother dimension of frustration.
January 22nd, 2010
I should state up front that I readily admit to the regular high quality of Harper’s. I’ve been a subscriber for years on and off, and I’ve been a front-to-back reader of every issue longer than most of you have been alive. It must be doing something right, to keep me coming back so long after I’ve abandoned so many other periodicals (and once I leave ‘em, they tend to fold – sorry Omni, nothing personal). They do many things right.
My problem with Harper’s is a certain little old lady from Connecticut. I’m sure you know her: she’s outlived her war hero husband and still lives in their dignified home; she always dresses properly and always counts her change. She utterly dominates the rest of her family, and if she were to admit this uncomfortable fact, she’d chalk it up to wisdom and life experience rather than money and the careful way she doles it out and withholds it.
She doesn’t have to be from Connecticut, of course – I’ve met her in dozens of cities in virtually every state in the Union. But wherever she calls home, she exercises an enormous sway over the editorial policy and content of Harper’s, and it gets wearisome.
You know what this lady likes to read. She watches Fox New religiously, not because it reflects her own beliefs but because it forms her own beliefs – Fox tells her not only what to care about but how to care about it, and as some of you will already know, that particular world-view is as rigid, as reflexive, and as hate-filled as the worst fanatical religious sect in the world. In fact, given that the Fox News ideology has spawned two enormous ongoing wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties, it has a fair claim to being the worst fanatical religious sect in the world.
The tenets of that sect are easy to learn. Just think of the schoolyard, and you’ll have it. Conformity is mandated, bullies rule, and the only form of speech is the taunt.
That lady from Connecticut believes in America, but at the same time she believes America is feckless, stupid, and helplessly at the mercy of ‘them.’ ‘They’ want to cut our military funding and fill the ranks with gays (who will be allowed to marry)(base commanders and ship captains will be forced to perform the ceremonies). ‘They’ want to raise our taxes and spend the money on frilly programs designed to help illegal immigrants. ‘They’ want to outlaw guns and mollycoddle criminals. ‘They’ have all sorts of far-out ideas about the world (and about respecting other cultures, for Heaven’s sake), ideas that just aren’t sensible. If America could just get rid of ‘them,’ it could go back to being the great country it was in 1955.
The lady from Connecticut won’t ever tell you who ‘they’ are – she’s never heard it explicitly from Fox News, and besides, she doesn’t need to tell you – you know. We all know. The gays. The Hispanics. The blacks. The intellectuals. The liberals. The J-e-w-s. She just wishes they’d all go back where they came from, instead of ruining everything for everybody else.
For reasons that surpass my understanding, Harper’s tailors a large percentage of its contents toward pleasing that lady from Connecticut, and it bugs the hell out of me every issue.
Take the latest issue, February 2010.
It goes without saying that the lady from Connecticut hates President Obama. After all, he’s black, liberal, and intellectual (and he might be gay – it’s a mess). And Harper’s chose to open this issue with a screed whose only purpose is to fan that hatred.
I don’t know Roger Hodge, but his ‘Notebook’ piece here, “The Mendacity of Hope,” is the most vile piece of I.Q.-lowering crapola I’ve read in a long time. The opening salvo is all I have the stomach to quote, but it gives you all the tone-setting you need:
A year has passed, and yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand.
If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now.
Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantanamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.
This is pure Fox News. This is yelling. And it has the same weird, sick effect all schoolyard taunting does: it makes you want to yell back. No matter how earnest or intelligent you are, it makes you want to yell at Roger Hodge “Shut up! Shut up!” But you know such a response is no more helpful than the original incitement, so you end up saying nothing – but that’s frustrating too, since it gives taunting the field.
As those of you who are old enough to remember Spy magazine will recall, the famous Harper’s Index has always specialized in taunting innuendo. ‘They’ rule here entirely – Harper’s Index is pretty much exclusively an ongoing rap-sheet for ‘them.’ Under the guise of bare-bones factual graphing (which Spy used to gleefully expose as one cooked quasi-statistic after another), the Index pushes the Fox mentality more strongly than any other part of the magazine. And the dark genius of it is that it prompts the reader to join in the math:
Chance that a would-be enlistee in the U.S. military aged 17 to 24 is rejected because of a criminal record: 1 in 20.
Chance that he or she is rejected because of physical unfitness: 1 in 3.
Conclusion: They’re filling our army with criminals! And repeat.
But as maddening as such tactics are, they aren’t as bad as the magazine’s ‘Readings’ feature, because that feature can often contain gems, short pieces that really are worth your attention. But those gems are invariably lodged cheek-to-cheek with xenophobic race-baiting out-of-context snippets designed to make the lady’s Connecticut beach house seem to her like the only sane place left on Earth.
This issue’s ‘Readings’ starts off with an excerpt from Jaron Lanier’s fantastic, heartfelt book You Are Not A Gadget, and that’s good. But such things are always counterbalanced by excerpts that reinforce the lady’s belief that the rest of the world is populated by silly little foreigners.
The piece titled “POTUS Blossom” is a perfect example. It’s setup is allegedly this:
From 3,290 questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack Obama in advance of his November 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai. Translated from the Chinese by Colin Jones.
Of those 3,290 questions, the Harper’s editors chose the ones most likely to please the lady’s preconceptions, with predictable results:
Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?
Can you tell us if UFOs exist? What is really going on at Area 51? I think Americans need to explain this to the rest of the world.
Can I discuss with you China’s purchasing Hawaii with U.S. dollars?
If you had to choose three flowers to describe your wife and daughters, what would they be?
Nowhere does Harper’s come out and say ‘See how funny and odd those little Chinese are?’ But what other purpose can there possibly be in translating one ‘clueless foreign’ question after another, especially if you know your readers will have no access to the remaining 3,240 questions? The purpose couldn’t be clearer: it’s to reassure that lady in Connecticut that she’s right to think foreigners are weird, childlike, and none too bright.
Constantly issuing those coded reassurances is demeaning to Harper’s reputation as one of the greatest magazines in history, and reading them every single month – knowing exactly what they’re for and seeing exactly how effectively they’re made – is demeaning for any reader who’s ever had an honest, non-fearful thought about the world.
The rest of these ‘Readings’ are no better. A long excerpt in which poet Derek Walcott windily muses back and forth over his word-choice in one of his poems isn’t designed to give that lady from Connecticut a glimpse inside the creative process: it’s designed to reinforce her belief that all modern poetry is bunk. The excerpt relaying a Denver ballot-initiative calling for an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission is designed to reinforce her worry that there are loonies out there who not only believe in UFOs but want to force her to believe in them too (the fact that it’s a ballot initiative and not just a pamphlet is crucial here). The deconstructed radical-form short story by Aura Estrada is meant to reinforce her belief that all ‘modern’ fiction makes no sense. This stuff is assembled here to give wry, knowing documentation to that lady’s belief that the world is one crazy, incomprehensible place.
The main meat of the issue starts on page 31, and things immediately improve. For all its shameful pandering, Harper’s has a core of actual literary excellence – there is a reason why readers like me keep coming back. Mark Schapiro’s report on ‘the carbon-trading shell game’ exposes some corporate ‘green’ practices that deserve exposing and only dances to the line of calling all ‘green’ procedures a fraud but doesn’t actually cross that line. Shahan Mufti’s account of an unlikely real estate boom in Pakistan is wonderfully written:
Baluchistan, like the rest of Pakistan, was slowly being chewed away by wars, big and small, internal and international. I had flown to this town on the Persian Gulf with a dream of making my home. There, on top of Koh-e-Batil, it dawned on me that, like Major –General MacGregor before me, I had become tangled in a Great Game. Nothing will induce me to come again.
Rivka Galchen’s short story “Once an Empire” is dumb but not offensively so, and Darryl Pinckney’s piece on becoming addicted to As the World Turns, though cowardly (you have to read the piece to find out that it’s a gay love story plot line that primarily intrigues Pinckney; that fact isn’t mentioned in the table of contents or the piece’s teaser-line), is entertaining. The photo portfolio on the Afghani sport of quail-fighting is beautiful and only mildly fraudulent (it flatly states “the birds do not fight to the death” and this is flatly untrue – it’s only there to calm the nerves of the lady from Connecticut), and there is the oddly comforting presence of that same old two-tone box ad for Walter Karp’s The Politics of War. The ad has been right there, advertising the same book, in every issue of Harper’s for the last ten years. The sheer inexplicable strangeness of that fact has long since passed the point of no return.
There are book reviews in the back, some of them good, some very frustrating – and one that’s both.
You get this dual reaction – thrilled and frustrated at once – when a really talented book reviewer trashes something you liked (this happens to me on an almost monthly basis over at Open Letters). I got that this time around with Wyatt Mason’s fantastic hatchet-job of Joshua Ferris’ new novel The Unnamed, which I thought was terrific. Mason clearly disagrees:
Whatever the underlying cause, the routine inconsistency and incompetence of the novel’s most basic feature – its prose – undermines the reader’s ability to take the book seriously, as seriously as it must be for its premise to take imaginative hold.
It’s brutal, honest, entirely misguided brilliance from start to finish – it made me want to call Josh and make sure he’s holding up OK under the barrage, and it simultaneously made me want to call Wyatt and get him to write something for Open Letters. It’s a thrilling little demonstration that probing, non-cheerleading literary criticism still has its place in the sun.
And every issue of Harper’s can be relied upon to do this one better, to serve up something truly magnificent. In this issue it’s the short essay called “The Company of Drawings” by John Berger. At first it reads like a pompous makeweight phoned in by a giant:
We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
But gradually, in layered vignettes, always returning to that ‘we who draw’ koan, Berger shapes a piece about the valiant indeterminacy of art that is deeply, richly rewarding.
The regularity of that euphoric little moment in Harper’s keeps me coming back – and every time I do, my patience is tested that much further by the magazine’s idiotic final goodbye-wave to that lady in Connecticut.
Of course I refer to the moronic ‘Findings’ feature on every issue’s last page. Unlike the Harper’s Index, these allegedly scientific little summaries are offered without any verification, even fraudulent verification. Instead, we get one lie after another stacked like cordwood:
NFL quarterbacks play better if they are better looking
In China (them again!)’s Hubei province, a gang of macaques trained in kung fu turned on their human master.
Studies of birds and mammals showed that males have more consistent personalities.
Researchers discovered four new species of king crab, concluded that female leatherback turtles are right-flippered, and revealed that the pitch of blue whale songs was getting lower.
Gerbils in Israel are more cautious than those in Jordan.
Needless to say, all these things are plucked so far out of their original context as to constitute simple falsehoods, as are the rest of this and every issue’s ‘Findings’ – not only are they designed to make that lady in Connecticut giggle a little (not an unworthy goal in itself – lord knows, it’s good for her), they’re designed to make her distrust not just fringe science but all science. It’s the George W. Bush years, caught in amber, on display every issue.
It’s hard to feel unmixed delight about a magazine that leaves such a rancid taste in your mouth at the end of every issue. No doubt it makes the lady from Connecticut smile her little self-satisfied smile, content for one more month in knowing that as crazy and deplorable as the world might be, at least the right kind of people are taunting the right targets, that there’s nothing so “smart” it can’t be reduced to an excerpt or a statistic.
But I, for one, wish Harper’s would cancel her damn subscription and give the rest of us more attention. Some of the greatest poetry and prose in the world was written by those funny little Chinese, after all, and we already know that only crackpots believe in UFOs. The editorial voices that routinely find brilliance like that John Berger piece should be given free rein over every issue. She’ll find something else to read.