Plenty of slim fiction was published in 2012, and a higher-than-normal percentage of it was crap; by some unknown algebra, the balance of the fictional equation this year tipped to fat, ambitious novels, almost a defiant snoot-cocking to those nabobs of negativity who claim the Internet is destroying the reader’s ability to concentrate. This was a year of big, confident novels, books the reader can wander in, get lost in, and, wonderfully, believe in. Here are the ten best of them all:
10. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander – Not all of them were long, of course, although most readers of Auslander’s raucous farce about a Jewish family in upstate New York will wish it were longer. That family – the Kugels – explosively embody some of the most persistent (and funniest) cultural preoccupations of being Jewish in the 21st century, from mother who’s constantly recalling the Nazi death-camps she never, in fact, saw to the spectre of Anne Frank, here given hilarious, shall we say, embodiment. Not only a funny-as-hell novel in the style of the great Joseph Heller, but also a clear indication that Auslander can go on to do anything.
9. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon – The scrappy little record store being threatened by a new corporate rival is just the smallest kernel of Chabon’s sprawling, hyper-talky, hilarious love-note to the monomaniacs, misfits, and redeemable losers he seems to like writing about so much. Past the sprawling cast of characters (including two boys whose friendship is portrayed with aching perfection – something of a house speciality with this author), past the typical Chabonesque topical obsessions (this time with vinyl), there’s the sheer joy of profuse, ornate storytelling. A novel to read and re-read.
8. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner – 2012 may have been the year – and Dead Stars the book – in which Wagner at last gains the broader readership which his cutting intelligence and acid-etched prose style have always deserved. If so, it couldn’t happen at a better point, since Dead Stars, with its cast of celebrity obsessers, celebrity stalkers, celebrity has-beens, and celebrities themselves, is Wagner’s most complex, most ambitious, and most successful novel to date, virtually a Dante’s “Inferno” of Hollywood.
7. John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk – Courageous profusion has always been this author’s trademark, and John Saturanall’s Feast is his most sensuous, overstuffed book so far, a linguistically wondrous tour through the worlds – and kitchens – of 17th Century England alongside our spirited young hero, a kitchen boy who climbs to the top of the ‘downstairs’ world. Far more than ‘fiction for foodies’ (or “Downton Abbey” fans), this book – Norfolk’s first in over a decade – is, like all his others, a marvellous exploration of the human heart in other eras than our own.
6. At Last by Edward St. Aubyn – St. Aubyn’s epic, diseased cycle of dysfunctional masterpieces culminates and concludes in this slim book, the final instalment in the darkly comedic (and often just dark) family strangulations of main character Patrick Melrose and his vicious family. Not for the feel-good holiday crowd, but one of the great 21st Century novel-cycles in English, full of perfectly-controlled prose that would have sickened Anthony Powell even as it turned him green with envy.
5. The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka – Also (quite literally) not a feel-good novel, Tyszka’s stunning, harrowing book about how illness and pain (both real and imagined – and indeed, often with the imagined being far worse than the real) form the inescapable, ugly counterweight to health and life just brims with sleek, merciless invention. Although born of very personal tragedy, The Sickness is wonderfully, dauntingly universal, by far the strongest and most brilliant thing this brilliant author has ever written.
4. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson – The inscrutable land of North Korea is no more scrutable at the end of Johnson’s impressive novel about Pak Jun Do (one of modern literature’s most frustrating protagonists, as irritating and yet compelling a cipher as any of the ‘beloved’ characters found in Dickens), a young man who in the course of Johnson’s generous, incredibly self-confident narrative manages to climb his way into and out of virtually all the circles of North Korea’s social hell. In Johnson’s plot, much happens to no apparent purpose, but there’s a fierce intelligence guiding it all, shaping this into one of the year’s most memorable novels – a book that, like the best ones this year, demands careful re-reading.
3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2. In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin – This enormous, gaudy throwback of a novel – rich in atmosphere, hyperbole, and heroism – is a fitting companion to the author’s immortal Winter’s Tale. It’s the story of two fated lovers – Harry Copeland and Catherine Thomas Hale – and the New York, at once factual and fantastic, that conspires to test and then validate their love. More than one critic set the pitch of their praise against some imagined opposition (“You just can’t hate this one! You just can’t!”), and they were right to do so: the bitter, clipped, arrogant hipster cynicism that afflicts so much of the literary world hates on principle all the things this grand, uplifting novel so brazenly champions. But In Sunlight and in Shadow wins all such contests easily – not through the cloy of nostalgia, but through the best, only sure way: the sheer bravura power of its prose.
1. Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman – This long, complex novel – the best of 2012 – intertwines the stories of three very different protagonists – a black janitor, an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a slightly washed-up American historian – and weaves them into an epic, unforgettable story of how things – and people – survive, how they both oppress and complete each other. There are scenes and set-pieces in these pages that could have been written by nobody else, chilling moments and moving plot-threads handled with a brilliance far exceeding even that found in the author’s own superb Seven Types of Ambiguity. Any genre that can boast this novel – indeed, all ten of these novels (and there were a dozen more almost as good in 2012)(prompting some friends to ask for a “Stevereads longlist”!) – has centuries of life left in its sacred charge of storytelling.
Well! In your silent multitudes, you have made your voices heard! I confess, I’d totally forgotten the email response I got the last time I posted a book-list here on Stevereads – I’d certainly forgotten the enthusiasm, and I shouldn’t have: after all, who doesn’t love a good list? Perhaps I forgot because I’m busy preparing the Mother of All Lists, that annual Stevereads gotterdammerung, the Best (and Worst) Books of the Year, but in any case, I immediately set aside my planned week’s worth of Taylor Lautner posts in favor of another list for you all. Last time, I gave you eight very good novels – this time, I’ve moved to a slightly higher weight division: these are eight novels that are better than very good, eight novels that are richer, more ambitious, and more rewarding than your average very good novel … eight great novels. They’re all contemporary (‘eight great novels’ from the canon being perhaps a tad predictable), and unless I’m very much mistaken, they’ll all be venerated by posterity in due course!
Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley (one-volume published in 1958)
This fat volume contains three long chapters – The Shrimp and the Anemone, The Sixth Heaven, and Eustace and Hilda – that come together Lord of the Rings-style to form one enormous narrative, the life-story of the two main characters, weak and squishy Eustace and forceful take-charge Hilda. Through them and their evolving relationship, Hartley is able to present the reader with almost the entire picture of his warped, incredibly complicated view of human relationships, and as if that weren’t fascinating enough, the books are also chock-full of glittering tossed-off bits on subjects ranging from Hartley’s beloved Venice:
Lady Nelly came out from the cool, porphyry-tinted twilight of St. Mark’s into the strong white sunshine of the Piazza.
The heat, like a lover, had possessed the day; its presence, as positive and self-confident as an Italian tenor’s, rifled the senses and would not be denied.
To his equally-pronounced love of sharp dialogue:
“I wish I was a writer,” said Heloise earnestly, before Eustace had time to think out a reply. “Then I could let everyone know what a wonderful time Lady Nelly’s giving us.”
Even Eustace, whose conversational approaches were fairly guileless, felt this to be an unsophisticated remark.
“She wouldn’t thank you,” said Lord Morebambe. “She likes her affairs kept private.”
But Lady Nelly did not seem to agree.
“Nonsense, Harry,” she said. “I’m only too pleased to know that Heloise is enjoying herself. How could I know if she didn’t tell me?”
“Well, you could see if she was crying,” said Lord Morecambe.
The reader cares about poor Eustace and even cares about less sympathetic Hilda, and this is one of those novel-sequences that manages to capture the feeling of time’s passage so effectively that readers will feel they’ve lived an entire life with these two characters and their fascinating supporting cast. The subject matter is resolutely Jamesian in its tight domestic focus (comparatively little actually happens in the course of the story), which makes it all the more mysterious to me why this big volume isn’t better known and more properly venerated. Nice that the NYRB people reprinted it, however.
The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner (1987)
Weesner’s cult novel is nominally about juvenile delinquent Alex Housman, the young car thief of the title who gets caught and sent away to a boys’ reformatory outside a city a lot like Detroit in its gritty desperation:
Another time, walking on the stadium field just after the game, Alex had seen a white man with a red-and-black ribboned badge on his jacket, flushed and very drunk – he might have said something – wiped out in seconds by a black handkerchief-head in a red-and-gray jacket, wearing leather gloves. The black kid, a bullet, suddenly danced and struck, hit the man in the jaw and knocked him bodily from where he had been walking. The man, fleshy and middle-aged, stumbled back a few feet, and the black kid moved after him, his leather fists flashing, hitting the man’s face s if throwing a flurry at a body bag, splattering blood from the man’s mouth and nose, until the man, as if already out and only needing room to fall, collapsed from the knees to the ground, as the black kid slipped away.
The city. Alex felt little desire to go there any more.
But really the book is about the fractured and oddly noble relationship between Alex and his hard-drinking father, who remains in the reader’s mind long after the details of Alex have begun to blur. This is a beautifully written but jagged-edged book, as painfully honest a depiction of the father-son dynamic as anything I know in 20th century fiction.
Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer (1985)
Despite its illustrious competition (Nadas!), I myself consider this lush, sharply ironic novel to be the single best item on our list today. On one level, it’s the story of the saintly and ultimately enigmatic rector Simeon Simcox, and his two sons, but in its sprawl and intelligence and compassion, it’s really about the perilous comforts of postwar England. Critics at the time of its original publication made inevitable comparisons to Brideshead Revisited – not only because the plot involves old properties and rich people, but also because Mortimer was well-known for his brilliant screenplay adaptation of Waugh’s book for the BBC mini-series. And there are plenty of moments where the comparison seems apt, both in setting:
Rapstone Manor is an old house on a hill a little way out of the village and has been, since Edward IV rewarded a steward with a sense of humour with the gift of a manor and the estates of Rapstone, the home of the Fanner family. The house was begun in the middle ages, added to under the Tudors and extended at the Restoration, when the Fanners received their reward for continued loyalty to the Royalist cause. An eighteenth-century Fanner built a new facade and a Victorian Fanner put on the ostentatious portico which gives the house the disconsolate air of a small city railway station set down in the middle of the countryside, with no trains. It’s a house shaded by large trees, approached up a long drive, set in a park where the deer are constantly on the look-out for ways of escape from death at the hands of Tom Nowt.
And in the snatches of ethos behind the novel’s many theological scenes, as when one old friend of the family muses:
“You can’t change people. You know that. You can’t make them stop hating each other, or longing to blow up the world, not by walking through the rain and singing to a small guitar. Most you can do for them is pull them out of the womb, thump them on the backside and let them get on with it”
But every time I read this incredible novel (incredible also that Mortimer wrote it at all – it’s like finding out that “P. G. Wodehouse” was actually a pen-name for Louis Auchincloss), I’m more firmly convinced that it’s a response not to Brideshead but to A Dance to the Music of Time – it’s equally full of quite ordinary characters getting caught in the rain and living their lives, and it’s got even better zingers. The two other things the books have in common, alas, are that a) they’re both amazing works of 20th century fiction, and b) they’re both not exactly well-loved by the reading public. But there’s always hoping.
The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus by Stephen Marlowe (1987)
This book is the funniest on our list – no mean feat, when that list is shared by John Mortimer! – and unlike with some of these other authors, it’s no mystery at all why Stephen Marlowe never became a household name: he wrote an early novel about Xenophon’s march to the sea, and he called … The Shining. If that isn’t enough to get you buried by the Fates, I don’t know what is – and it worked: Marlowe’s great novels (including that one) are all unknown.
This one is his best: Christopher Columbus narrating his own lavishly detailed life story, told with impeccable comic timing and, much like in Joseph Heller’s God Knows, a paradoxically full awareness of the centuries that passed after his death. In this novel, it’s no mistake to find our hero excoriating poor Washington Irving, nor is it unusual for him to take the long view of history while he’s scene-setting:
A warning about the pages to follow. The language may daunt even the stout of heart. But the English in those days, isolated on their island and unaware of the strides toward refinement and culture made by the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere on the Continent, spoke as they lived – crudely.
They may to some degree be excused. Everyone knows what happens after a war, say your average four-or-five-year war – carpet-baggers, Lost Generations, Iron Curtains, etc., etc. But suppose a country fought a war continuously for a hundred years and LOST? This was England’s predicament at the end of the Hundred Years War, as it’s called, and I got there less than twenty years after the final battle at Castillon and the retreat from Bordeaux in 1453, which settled the conflict in France’s favor. Following a century of casualties, privation, uncertainty, Joan of Arc, plague and finally defeat, the English wallowed in a kind of joyless carnality, and this was reflected in their speech.
Columbus is also alive to the many ironies of his subsequent veneration:
…this narrative is full of perverse twists because it mirrors life. Take John Cabot’s place in history. Here’s a real Italian, born in Genoa but a citizen of Venice even though he would be sailing under charter to England’s King Henry VII when he made landfall in North America on Midsummer Day of 1497. And here am I, born at sea of recently converted Spanish Jewish parents, an accidental Italian who went almost everywhere but sailed exclusively for Spain. And how do the historians write it? They make me out to be the authentic paisan’ and call him plain John Cabot. Maybe one man in a hundred knows Giovanni Gaboto’s the real paisan’, not me, and all he did was discover North America where an Italian population almost as large as Italy’s would eventually hold annual parades in my honor.
The novel is a sustained feat of high-spirited lampoonery, with plenty of deeply-felt emotion sneaked in while the reader is laughing. Most of those readers, seeing its portentous title on the spine (often mis-shelved in the biography section of used bookstores), might pass this book by – don’t be one of those readers!
Fool’s Errand by Louis Bayard (1999)
Bayard has since gone on to write curiously forgettable historical novels and light fantasias, but he started out writing this utterly charming and painfully heartfelt gay novel about a young man named Patrick who takes a nap in a little room while visiting some friends and is awakened by a gorgeous man in a bright sweater made of something that looks like vaguely Scottish (Shetland?) wool. The man disappears, and once Patrick is fully awake, he asks his hosts who he was – only to be told they don’t recognize the description. In a surreal fashion, Patrick becomes obsessed with finding the dream-man he dubs Scottie (he’s aided by his nebbishly friend Seth, for reasons the reader will guess long before Patrick does) and who he considers the perfect balm to the failure of his relationship with his long-time boyfriend Alex, who still occasionally twinges his regrets:
Alex was handsome – the remembrance came to Patrick with a little pang as he contemplated the mass of medium-brown hair not yet sacrificed to fashionable salon cuts, the bright hazel eyes, the intense regularity of the features – that clean, wholesome profile and the perfectly straight nose, the kind of nose a plastic surgeon would build templates from. Suddenly it seemed perfectly sensible to Patrick that someone who looked so – so ordered would need to impose a little order on his surroundings, would feel obliged to be the world’s organizing intelligence.
Why had Patrick never allowed himself to be organized?
And why had he never really looked at Alex before? While they were still together? It seemed, in retrospect, they had always believed in avoiding each other’s glance. Why was that?
Somewhere, he thought, Somewhere Seth is lurking.
The ending of Fool’s Errand is unabashedly sentimental, and by the time they reach it, all but the most cynical readers will have felt they’ve earned it.
Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk (1991)
I’ve praised Norfolk many times here on Stevereads and elsewhere – I consider him one of the least-known great novelists working today, and although I’m personally partial to his idiosyncratic masterpiece In the Shape of a Boar, I, like many readers, first became acquainted with him through this novel, the febrile, hugely inventive re-imagining of poor hapless John Lempriere, eventual compiler of one of my favorite and most-consulted reference works, Lempriere’s Dictionary. The novel by that name reads like a far, far more intelligent version of Katherine Neville’s The Eight crossed with the historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian, and all of it compulsively overlaid with a classical patina:
The carriage wheels come to a slow halt, intruding more subtly into his daydream now, the two merging as John Lempriere watched the image of Aphrodite descended from the aether to earth in the guise of Juliette Casterleigh. The sun-burnt Cyprian, eyes wide and fishing nets forgotten at the sight of the goddess’s birth, had his counterpart in the young Lempriere. His gaze unreturned, he watched slack-jawed at the vision of Venus Epistrophia in a spume of cream linen placing a delicate foot on the cracked foot-plate of the Casterleigh carriage.
This is a very intelligent, very, very strange novel – you won’t have read anything quite like it, and if it prompts you to read more by Lawrence, so much the better.
A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas (1997) (1986 as Emlekiratok konyve)
This is the great big novel (700 pages) that was so egregiously over-praised when it first appeared that readers back then could be forgiven for thinking it was actually no good at all (Harry Mulisch’s great 1992 novel The Discovery of Heaven suffered much the same fate, and you should read it too). But Nadas can’t be blamed for feckless critics, and the reverse is true: this is a great novel, nominally set in 1970s East Berlin but, in typical Nadas fashion, narratively wandering everywhere and indulging in a low-key delirium of shifting perspectives – even, as in this virtuoso morning-after moment (Nadas being by far our best, most interesting writer about sex), a scene where brain and skin give almost conflicting accounts of the same sensations, each mitigating the other almost to a nullity:
The tiniest move could have broken this peacefulness, so I didn’t even feel like opening my eyes; I was hanging on to something that had become final between us then, in the shared warmth of our bodies, and I didn’t want her to see my eyes, to see how frightened I was of what was to come – it was good like this, let fear be mine! – of my body I felt only the parts her body could make me feel: under the rucked-up silk dress the moist surface of her skin touching mine – that was my thigh; at the level of her neck my own breath mingling with the whiffs of stifling odor rising from her armpits; I felt the hard edge of a hip that may have been mine, its hardness the hardness of my bone; I felt my shoulder and back even when my shoulder and back still felt the arm, for somehow even the receding weight left an impression in the flesh and bones; and when she also raised her head a bit to take a better look at the bite mark on my neck, I was glad to be able to watch through barely raised eyelashes, not exposing my eyes; all she could see was the quiver of the lids, the flutter of the lashes; she couldn’t imagine how scared I was, and we hadn’t even begun, but I could see her in almost perfect clarity, looking at my neck, yes, I could fool her so easily; she looked at it long, even touched the spot with her stiff finger; her lips parted, edged closer, and kissed it where it still hurt a little.
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2008)
Lehane is of course famous for his anemic Boston-based murder mysteries, so this big, rich historical novel – centering around the 1919 Boston police strike but broadening to encompass, Dos Passos-style, the entire first half of the 20th century – came as a big surprise to me. Lehane writes about everything in this overstuffed book with real, practiced knowledge and a sharp trust in the intelligence of his readers, and although Babe Ruth steals the show, it’s only natural that the book’s many scenes featuring the police (and their corrupt, conniving bosses) should have an extra crackle to them:
Commissioner Curtis sat behind his desk with a revolver lying just to the right of his ink blotter. “So, it’s begun.”
Mayor Peters nodded. “It has, Commissioner.”
Curtis’s bodyguard stood behind him with his arms folded across his chest. Another waited outside the door. Neither was from the department, because Curtis no longer trusted any of the men. They were Pinkertons. The one behind Curtis looked old and rheumatic, as if any sudden movement would send his limbs flying off. The one outside was obese. Neither, Peters decided, looked fit enough to provide protection with their bodies, so tehy could only be one other things: shooters.
“We need to call out the State Guard,” Peters said.
Curtis shook his head. “No.”
“That’s not your decision, I’m afraid.”
Curtis leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. “It’s not yours either, Mr. Mayor. It’s the governor’s. I just got off the phone with him not five minutes ago and he made it very clear, we are not to engaged the Guard at this juncture.”
“What juncture would you two prefer?” Peters said. “Rubble?”
Lehane works in racial unrest, bare-knuckle boxing, and even a fairly convincing love story, and he does it all with a no-nonsense honesty reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, and he makes you believe every word of it. Tough to go back to reading his South Boston whodunits, after this.
And there you have it! Eight great contemporary novels to satisfy your cravings, should you be in a used bookstore and be in the mood! And as always, keep in mind the full Stevereads guarantee: I’ll not only recommend these books to you, I’ll send you copies of them if you can’t find any yourself. Each one of these is certain to please.
In the waning months of 2010, I got quite a few comments from the Silent Majority asking me whatever became of regular In the Penny Press updates. And it’s true: I neglected writing about my vast magazine-reading, mainly because the year’s impending end had me thinking more and more about all the books I still wanted to write about.
But as the American magazine industry is forever reminding us these days, despite the Internet and the decline of literacy, magazine-reading is as healthy as its been in decades. And I certainly contribute my share to that! I read every issue of National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal, Outside, The American Scholar, Royalty, Majesty, Natural History, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York, Rolling Stone, Asimov’s, the TLS, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, Publisher’s Weekly, The Romantic Times Book Club, The Boston Review, and the New York Review of Books, and I usually find something noteworthy about every single issue of every single one of those … so it’s a tad laggardly if I stop blogging about them here. If Stevereads is the autobiography of my reading, scanting on magazines would be like skipping a chapter.
Hence, I started off the year with a Penny Post entry, and I’ll keep it up – starting now,
with a very strong little pod of titles consumed at my usual table at my little hole-in-the-wall Chinese food place in Chinatown (not the same hole-in-the-wall place that served me for a whopping 30 years – it closed! – but a newer, even smaller place that’s unknown both to stupid American customers and, I suspect, to the Boston Board of Health… I get a HUGE plate of food for a pittance, and I’m left alone to read in sweet peace for as long as I want, because the staff is wonderful and also because there are never any other customers). The opening dish, as it were, was The New Yorker,
which featured, among other things, a poem I rather liked and which I include here in place of my late, apparently unlamented ‘Poetry Class’ feature:
In the little house filled with dogs and resilient plants
She left only a glass and a blank sheet of paper.
The stadium up the road like a siren called with silent applause
To climb up, climb beyond the seats and the grass
Where a team of young girls kicked a white ball.
Maybe she knew they were there, maybe she was calling back
A line a male poet committed to the page a decade ago,
About time made simple by the loss of detail.
Maybe she then cast out every detail but the unencumbered air
To keep it simple. And then fluttered away from us.
That’s called “Air” by Daniel Halpern, and I like it quite a bit.
Amazingly, I also liked the beginning of this issue’s short story – and the reason it’s amazing is because the story, called “The Years of My Birth,” is by the dreaded Louise Erdrich, whose work I’ve hated since the Great Depression. And keep in mind, I still hate her work – this story is slightly less wretched than her usual blather, it’s true, but it still falls apart almost completely on both a plot and an execution level. But the opening is, against all odds, first-rate:
The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, “Oh, God, there’s another one,” and out I slid, half dead. I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights. She was stopped by the doctor, who pointed out my head and legs. Stepping between me and the mother, the doctor addressed her.
“Mrs. Lasher, I have something important to say. Your other child has a congenital deformity and may die. Shall we use extraordinary means to salvage it?”
She looked at the doctor with utter incomprehension at first, then cried, “No!”
While the doctor’s back was turned, the nurse cleared my mouth with her finger, shook me upside down, and swaddled me tightly in another blanket, pink. I took a blazing breath.
“Nurse,” the doctor said.
“Too late,” she answered.
Any story that begins with that kind of crackle just naturally compels you to keep reading – which I unfortunately did, but still.
(The issue also features a droll, enjoyable essay by Joan Acocella about the popularity of the Stieg Larsson novels. She makes a few good stabs, but ultimately she can’t figure it out either)
And as enjoyable as I find practically every issue of The New Yorker, I turned with special eagerness – I always do – to my own metier, book-criticism. And boy, what a great double-barrelled blast of book-criticism you get when you read The London Review of Books and the TLS back-to-back! In the London Review this time around there’s an absolutely howlingly great take-down of George W. Bush’s Decision Points, which is sly and vicious and fleet-footed and would be sufficient to induce authorly catatonia, if the former president ever actually read it. Which seems, all in all, unlikely. The piece is by Eliot Weinberger, and surely its most glorious paragraph is this one:
This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness)l no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer (‘imperative’ because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by ‘friendly fire’ in Afghanistan; no ‘Total Information Awareness’ from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on ‘abstinence education’.
Hee. Of course, many of the items on that list are very nearly as fraudulent in their glancing mention here as their omission from Bush’s book is (Open Letters
‘ own Greg Waldmann, taking the less fun but more measured tone here
, no doubt renders things more correctly, even at the cost of pyrotechnics), but the spittle flying off the piece was hugely enjoyable just the same.
(And while we’re on the subject of OLM-
echoes, Peter Campbell turns in a piece in this same issue in which he takes in the Thomas Lawrence exhibit now at the National Portrait Gallery and appreciates Lawrence’s work as much as I did here.
He writes: “There are some tremendous pictures among the things gathered here. Pictures of ‘real genius’? Well, ‘genius’ is not an easy word, but certainly vivid, appealing and, sometimes, as in the case of the military or of fashionable ladies, necessarily tawdry”)
If I had to pick one highlight of the issue, however, it would be the utterly sui generis meditation on wild boars (and Paul Celan? I still haven’t figured that part out yet) by the great novelist Lawrence Norfolk (whose greatest novel, In the Shape of a Boar, almost certainly generated this piece by accident years ago), including this little gem: “In the late 1980s, two young boars attacked an F16 fighter plane attempting to land at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, causing its destruciton.” (The anecdote is no more true than some of Weinberger’s slung-around accusations, but it’s just as much fun)
And the riches on hand in the TLS
were, if anything, greater – starting with a wonderful extended explanation for the dismayingly phoned-in little squib
I took Adam Hirsch to task for in the Book Review
here. In this issue of the TLS,
he delivers a long and gloriously intelligent review of a thoroughly unworthy subject, the letters of Saul Bellow, and the piece is every bit as smart as his Book Review
piece was vapid, every bit as detailed as his Book Review
piece was vague. Virtually every paragraph of this spectacular review sparkles with nerve and insight:
The soul makes the flesh, which is why it can’t survive the flesh. And this insight is guaranteed, for Bellow, by the very vividness with which the physical world appeals to him – an intensity so powerful that he could not believe it was merely subjective. This very early intuition is what led Bellow to his late enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner, whose books are so dreadfully written that only a deep spiritual aspiration could have led a reader of Bellow’s sensitivity to tolerate them.
I find I can forgive any number of fatuous essays on the Role of the Book-Critic Today if the essayist in question is still capable of knocking reviews like this one out of the ballpark. If a tongue-lashing from Stevereads was all it took to get Kirsch back in line, I’m happy to serve.
And speaking of tongue-lashings! Some of you may have noticed the pan
I gave to Ron Chernow’s new hagiography of George Washington, so of course I read Mark Spencer’s review of the same book with great interest. Alas, he decides mostly to praise the thing despite the fact that its manifold deficiencies are in full display on every page. This is as close as Spencer comes to invective: “Convincing us to trade in our “frosty respect for Washington” for a “visceral appreciation of this foremost American” sometimes leads Chernow beyond the evidence of the historical record.”
Needless to say, I disagree with such a positively Jeevesian level of restraint. Maybe Spencer would profit from a tongue-lashing …