It’s beginning to be that time of year in the Penny Press, the infamous season of year-end book-lists. And since I’m the proud proprietor of the most authoritative of those lists (if I do say so myself)(and I do), I’m always irresistibly drawn to them wherever I find them – even if it’s in the pages of a lad-mag like Esquire. In fact this especially so in the case of a lad-mag like Esquire, since I’ve been a champion many times in the past of the last thing you’d associate with such publications: intellectual content.
So naturally I turned with interest to Page 42 of the latest issue, for something promisingly titled “Esquire Year in Reading,” where the sub-title read: “And What a Year It’s Been! Here’s an Incomplete but Sufficient Roundup – The Great, the Good, and The Detestable.”
It has indeed been a year, I thought. In the United States alone, something just under 300,000 new titles (and new editions of old titles) were published in 2013 – which is a staggeringly vast array even without taking other countries into account. So any roundup must perforce be incomplete, but I liked the cockiness of that “sufficient” – such a claim is vintage Esquire.
The first page was encouraging (despite the illustration showing a glass of scotch sitting on top of a pile of books – clear visual shorthand that reading isn’t something you’re supposed to do sober, in long stretches, no: you’re more a flip-a-few-pages kind of guy, you know, while you’re waiting for your lady friend to doll herself up real nice for a night out on the town): Benjamin Percy gives a very short but pretty good rave for Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “Tartt publishes a novel every decade, and damn if she doesn’t put her whole heart into it. This is what a major literary event looks like.” Up next, the always-awkward phenomenon of a really good reader recommending a weak book – in this case Esquire‘s resident literary light Scott Raab (who does a really – dare I say it – engaging interview with Patrick Stewart elsewhere in this issue … just flip past a few dozen ads for getting mouth cancer from processed tobacco products and you’ll find it) praising football player Nake Jackson’s sports memoir Slow Getting Up. But since the pleasure of reading Raab would outweigh the awkwardness even if he were recommending something truly awful, the entry was painless enough.
Things get much rockier in the next little mini-review, Tom Chiarella writing about The Cuckoo’s Calling, the murder mystery J. K. Rowling wrote under the pen-name Robert Galbraith. Chiarella is an intelligent writer, but no good can come from an amateur trying to ape the obscure impenetrability of a professional weekly book critic: “The Cuckoo’s Calling is talky and overlong for a story that’s not too complicated. Rowling would have been better off just putting her name on it and taking the heat, enjoying the sales, and doing the work that comes with being the woman she is.” Hmmmm.
More promising was the next piece, where the always-excellent Luke Dittrich manages to turn in an intelligent appreciation of Wil Hylton’s excellent WWII book Vanished in only about 100 words. Vanished is a very good book, and it was nice to see Dittrich mention it here. Even nicer was the surprise of the next and much longer piece, in which Tom Junod writes about Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath in tones of measured contempt despite the fact that the book, with its brainless boosterism of guys who don’t want to think, seems tailor-made for the Esquire core audience that thinks smoking is cool and women are meat products and there’s nothing obscene about paying $2500 for a wrist watch. Very nice, I thought: that’s readerly integrity trumping bro-expedience.
Then I turned the page, and bro-expedience came rushing back at me – in the form of actress Addison Timlin’s shapely little breasts.
Because the “Books of the Year” feature – the one that was “incomplete but sufficient” – was over.
I actually doubled back a few times at my lunch table, momentarily certain I’d accidentally stuck two or three pages together by handling them with gang hung lay-covered fingers. But no: Esquire‘s “Books of the Year” for 2013 consisted of … five books.
Very patently, that is not sufficient. But the debacle has at least one up-side: it serves as a perfect occasion for me to remind you all that the very antithesis of such a squib is nearly here: the great annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year is only days away, and I’ve made it bigger and more elaborate than ever. It still won’t be but a patch on those 300,000 new books published in 2013 … but it’ll have just a few more notices than six. SIX! Come on, Esquire – as you yourself have pointed out over the years, real men can read books. Dude!
It’s fashion month in the Penny Press these days, which means the square-bound glossies are suddenly a bit thicker and much more tightly crammed with full-color full-page spreads of varied and frenzied incomprehensibility. As many of you will have no trouble believing, fashion is a mystery to me; not only do I completely lack the physical traits that make it feasible in the first place, I also completely lack the herd mentality at the very heart of the concept. You need to be susceptible to that kind of herd mentality in order to justify spending money (often exorbitant amounts of it) specifically for the purpose of looking ridiculous – the only way an otherwise normal person would do that is if it were very important to them that they be doing something lots of other people are doing, and damn the consequences.
Take young men’s current fashion as a case-in-point: skin-tight clothing, pantlegs that end at mid-shin, no socks, ridiculous faux-1950s hats, enormous barn-owl sized eyeglasses (worn almost exclusively by pretty illiterates) … the combination of these things makes the wearer look, objectively speaking, like a homeless superhero in secret identity mode. Even now, without the benefit of twenty years’ hindsight, such a getup looks just plain ridiculous, like all those embarrassing photos of grown men wearing dashikis in the ‘70s. But fashion not only embraces the ridiculous, it caters to it – so the lavish photos filling these issues can be a mysterious little education in themselves. I sometimes stare at one or another of them, trying in all seriousness to figure out what the point is. What’s the point of a Perry Ellis ad featuring a young man staring in wonder at a woodpecker, for example? I don’t know and I don’t think I ever will know. I’m not meant to know. Such ads are windows into an entire world that I will never visit.
Fortunately, I can still manage to find my footing even in fashion-crazed theme issues. Magazines like Esquire and GQ might rent out more space than normal at this time of year to ads showing James Franco hawking perfume of Tom Brady championing shoes (at least, I think it was shoes – maybe you’re not supposed to care; maybe you’re just supposed to say “Oh look, it’s Tom Brady”), but their editors aren’t entirely driven from the field, and so some genuine content can still be found if you did far enough into the rear section of the magazine.
Take the latest Esquire, for instance. It has plenty of clothing ads, but it also has the redoubtable Scott Raab turning in the capstone to his magnificent chronicle of the rebuilding taking place at Ground Zero in Manhattan. When he started this project, I thought it was a dud of a subject, the subsuming of the sublime into the quotidian, but I should have known better: it’s the writer who makes the subject, not the other way around. Raab’s ongoing chapters have been superb (award-worthy, one might add), and this latest one – about the 1 World Trade Center that’s been erected at Ground Zero and the people (certifiably insane in my opinion, but Raab is more sympathetic) who are contemplating setting up offices inside what even an optimist has to consider the world’s biggest terrorist target. Raab puts as valiant a spin on things as he can:
Gutting the values and principles that’s we like to think define us as an exceptional nation – you know, that whole Bill of Rights deal – isn’t the response of a country confident in its freedom It’s the cowardice of a nation to fractured by fear to face the truth about the human condition: We’re always vulnerable – all of us, together and alone.
It takes courage to accept that vulnerability and not let it rule our lives, private and public. That’s exactly what the rebuilt World Trade Center demonstrates already, already filled with people courageous enough to embrace life and liberty as a matter of fact, not foofaraw. In short: Americans.
It’s all hooey, of course – anybody who voluntarily works in that building is publicly telling their friends and loved ones that they’re perfectly OK playing Russian roulette every single day – but it’s certainly Grade-A hooey. I wouldn’t be surprised if that quoted passage weren’t read aloud at the mass memorial service, in the wake of the next attack on this specific target.
The odd confluence of foofaraw and Americanism is at the heart of another standout piece in this issue, John Richardson’s antic, surprisingly nuanced profile of nutjob radio host Alex Jones, who’s become the darling of the frothing lunatic fringe mainly because he doesn’t believe in any narrative of past or present events whatsoever that he hasn’t constructed himself. The moon landings? Fake. The attacks of 9/11? Inside jobs. The Boston Marathon bombings? A ‘false flag’ operation by the Obama administration. Jones is the high priest of the cover-up; in his world-view, enormous forces are at work constantly, everywhere, planting plausible-seeming cover-stories over every single thing that makes the headlines. It’s permissible to enjoy him for about fifteen minutes of YouTube clips (his idea of gun-rights defense, for instance, was to challenge Piers Morgan to a boxing match – the musky rumpus rooms of men like Jones are the only places in the West where the fantasy of trial by combat lives on), but any more than that and your brain starts to go mushy with an overdose of paranoia and shouting.
He’s a punchline, in other words, but Richardson, to his credit, doesn’t treat him that way. Although he does gets in some of the exasperation he must have felt while spending time with his subject:
There is something oddly comforting about being with Jones. In a world where so many of us suffer from an “inability to constellate,” the modern affliction where stars no longer arrange themselves into the outlines of gods, he has the reassuring authority of Father Knows Best updated for the apocalypse. But when he’s talking in italics, it must be said, the dude is freakin’ exhausting…
If anything, Richardson’s profile of Jones is a lot more palatable than Tom Chiarella’s star-struck fluffery in the same issue about Avengers star Chris Hemsworth. Chiarella talks with him on the deck of a borrowed beach house overlooking the crashing Southern California surf, where the star is munching on fruit served to him by his pretty actress wife, Chiarella breathlessly reporting that the whole time Hemsworth seems genuinely happy as if this is some sort of counter-intuitive revelation (the reason why they’re out on the deck instead of inside – that Hemsworth was chain-smoking throughout the interview – is of course never mentioned, nor is the star’s rather banal Aussie brand of stupidity).
Over in the latest GQ, the hunt for actual substance is a bit grimmer and more protracted. The issue is full of blathering about the NFL and how to eat like a man, but sure enough, if you wade far enough back, there’s a choice nugget: Matthew Woodson’s excellent dissection of the attack on Camp Bastion in Afghanistan in 2012, in which 15 Taliban dressed themselves like American soldiers, entered the heavily-fortified base, and proceeded to blow things up. Woodson has a fantastic story to tell, and he’s up to the task, pacing his dramatics perfectly in a story that seems ready-made for Hollywood:
[Major Robb] McDonald had no idea how many attackers had slipped in, but he knew where he might find them: out on the flight line, looking for more aircraft to burn. He enlisted three Marines to have a look. “I’m gonna go count the jets,” he quipped to a startled sentry on his way out.
Ultimately, when my Penny Press reading time was up, I’d learned a good deal about a handful of fascinating subjects and enjoyed a big healthy dose of great prose. I was still in the dark about the woodpecker, however.
It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.
Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:
At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.
But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.
I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.
So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:
Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.
Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.
Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”
So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.
The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.
That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genres – can inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).
And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?
That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.
And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …