Currently reading The Best American Essays 2014 ed by John Jeremiah Sullivan (HMH)
Currently reading The Best American Essays 2014 ed by John Jeremiah Sullivan (HMH)
In my haste to fulminate on the quasi-criminality of celebrating Columbus Day, I omitted to reference one very clever and useful book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz(Beacon Press). MS. Dunbar-Ortiz does ground-breaking work in the burgeoning focus on “bottom-up peoples’” histories with the first history of USA told from the perspective of indigenous peoples (of which there are currently more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations). When the Europeans arrived in now what is known as the United States (of America), there were fifteen million living and thriving Native people. After 400 years of regnant genocidal characters from Columbus and his ilk to Andrew Jackson and G.A. Custer there are 3 million descendants.An Indigenous Peoples’ History gives vivid snapshots of some of dark and shameful episodes of the US’s past.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz elucidates:
The charge of genocide, once unacceptable by establishment academic and political classes when applied to the United States, has gained currency as evidence of it has mounted , but it is too often accompanied an assumption of disappearance> So I realized it was crucial to make the reality and significance of Indigenous people’s survival clear throughout the book Indigenous survival as peoples is due to centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations, and I sought to demonstrate that this survival is dynamic, not passive.Surviving genocide, by whatever means is resistance: non Indians must know this in order to more accurately understand the history of the United States.
Currently reading Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash (ECCO)
Something possessed me to watch a putative thriller with Richard Gere as a retired CIA agent called back to track down the deadly killer that the agency believed was dead. Gere has a young striving FBI agent assigned to work with him. After the agent's initiation into dealing with a crusty, veteran agent who has been convinced to comeback for a career encore, he invites said loner agent to have dinner and to meet his wife.
Said wife—chirpy and bubbly greets Gere and FBI hubby on the walkway to
their doorstep. Introductions are made.
The wife says, "Welcome to our humble commode"
Now it must be said that I am forever searching for another Our Man in Havana. Or Spy Games or Safe House. Or the Constant Gardener. The Double is not one of those
Currently reading A History of Cuban Baseball,1864-2006 by Peter Bjarkman (McFarland & Co.)
I suspect it would be unfair to extoll in detail the Frances McDormand /Lisa Cholodenko / Jane Anderson realization of Elizabeth Strout’s fine award-winning novel Olive Kitteridge two weeks before its HBO debut. But having now seen the complete four episodes of the mini-series, let me tickle your interest
Additionally there is a fine profile of MS McDormand in a recent New York Times:
During the production of “Olive,” she found herself more comfortable being wizened and grayed for the sequences when the Kitteridges are in their 70s than being blurred and buffed for when they’re in their 40s. To play those younger years, Mr. Jenkins, who is 67, was given tape to tighten loose skin below his jawline. She wasn’t, not at first.
Then one day, after a camera test, Ms. Cholodenko pulled her aside and, as Ms. McDormand recalls it, nervously asked, “Did you ever read Nora Ephron’s essay about her neck?”
“Yes,” Ms. McDormand answered. “Give me the tape.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about?” Ms. Cholodenko said, relieved.
Ms. McDormand smiled as she remembered the exchange, explaining, “She thought she was going to have to give me this whole speech about how she was sorry I wasn’t looking young enough.”
On the other hand, it can not be said too often what a fine novel MS.Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is. Here’s a chat I had with her a while back
Here’s a fragment of our conversation:
RB: So inhabiting a character’s life for an extended period, it’s not a haunting experience?
ES: Well it is a haunting experience. It’s a strange experience. And I’ve though about this with each of my books, because they, in a huge way, do occupy me [within] my mind, and when I’m not writing about them I’m mulling over who they are and what they might do. And I live with them and love them for long periods of time and then they’re done, and I sort of can’t imagine they ever will be done, but then they are. And so far, luckily, there’s been another emergence of something else.
Currently reading The Rules of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake (The Mysterious Press)
Looking back at my education in the 60’s era Chicago public schools, I am struck by how little I learned (although because of certain teen age biological imperatives regarding my long-legged history teacher, I can still identify the British monarchy’s succession from the Stuart’s on up.)Now this ought not be taken as a condemnation of that system as clearly multitudes have benefited from their school experiences. But it does speak to my process of edification sans erudition. Not a bad way to go.
Given the scarcity of gadflies,contrarians, truth tellers, iconoclasts and such—dare I call them prophets (maybe wise men and women works better), I hold the few that I have come across in very high regard. I am tempted to offer that conversing with that small but persistent cadre as a necessity of a well lived and mindful life but I suspect that may fall on the deaf ears of the new and mobile media transfixed of my fellow citizens,
Paul Krassner a patriarch of the radical “new journalism” of the 1960s is one of those wise people. I first ran in to him at a University of Illinois (Chicago)lecture and there after became an appreciative reader of his incendiary and satirical magazine, The Realist. And that discovery was at a moment when having your “mind blown” was still a novelty.
The second time I ran into Krassner was at the legendary Alternative Media Conference in 1971. Somewhere I have a photo of he and poet and Fugs member Tuli Kupferberg sitting on a park BMW motorcycle.Twenty something years passed and Paul Krassner came to Boston for the publication of publication an anthology of Krassner’s writing, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race
We had a nice chat. Here’s sampling
RB: What would Lenny Bruce have gone on to become? If he had reached a ripe age of even fifty, what do you think he would have…?
PK: I think he would have continued to evolve as an icon. When I first interviewed him and asked him what’s the role a comedian and he gave a very formal answer: “To get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds.” And then as he got more and more involved in the world, he would get more serious sometimes in his performances. Instead of yelling out, “Lenny, you’re funny,” people would say, “Lenny, you’re honest.” And I said to him, “You remember you said the role of a comedian is to get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds? That’s not happening now.” And he says, “Well, I’m changing.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.” So he knew that he had become a symbol, and I think he would have continued in that vein. He would have spoken out.
Here’s kindred spirit, Kurt Vonnegut on Krassner:
I told Krassner one time that his writings made me hopeful. He found this an odd compliment to offer a satirist. I explained that he made supposedly serious matters seem ridiculous, and that this inspired many of his readers to decide for themselves what was ridiculous and what was not. Knowing that there were people doing that, better late than never, made me optimistic.
So, Paul Krassner has a new book Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials (courtesy of the fine people at PM Press) contains his acute absurdist understanding of two odd headline events of the late 20th century the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army and assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay leader Harvey Milk. There are a couple of other tidbits in this book including an Outspoken Interview with Krassner
Currently reading Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford (ECCO)
Hats off to the city of Seattle. Exchanging a celebration of Indigenous Peoples for what ought to be a national day of shame, is an inspiring act of much needed revisionism. The American Exceptionalism, which if I recall correctly, was originally a scholarly term of approbation has now been embraced as
by neoliberal mandarins (not the least of whom is our current president)as great positive attribute.
Utopian as this notion might seem, I would offer that instead of the mania for for the so-called Core and the misguided emphasis on Algebra ought to be supplanted or at least balanced by an American History that reflects the actual events that occurred —warts and all. Certainly the introduction into the educational conversation of Howard Zinn‘s “People’s History” is a good step (this despite the efforts of states like Indiana to ban all Zinn’s works from being taught in that state’s public schools).Maybe someone can show me what the harm is in filling in the details of Columbus and his comrades’s expropriation of already settled lands. Or a slavery hating American icon breeding with his slaves. Or the great Tennessee populist joyfully exterminating various indigenous tribes. And what about the land grab for Mexico’s territories and the self serving mandate of manifest destiny which when there was no more land to “acquire” led to USA’s crusades in Cuba and the Philippines. Setting aside the depredations of US presence in Central America and the rest of the world it might be helpful to the current generations of students to have a coherent presentation on the US adventure in Vietnam.
As I see it, the greatest distortion of American culture is the both the recollections of the Civil Rights Era and the feel good notion that we have come a long way in the march to civil equality (for which the events of Ferguson, Missouri are a vivid countervailing example).
I was watching the documentary The 50 Year Argument and there was a riveting snippet by the great black writer James Baldwin*:
We haven’t invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I have always known—I had to know by the time I was 17 years old— what you were describing was not me… what you were afraid of was not me, it had to be somebody else. So it had to be something you were afraid of that you invested me with. I learned this because I had to learn it But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is still necessary. Well, its not necessary to me. It must be necessary to you. I give you you problem back. You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.
If you need a refresher or an introduction to that roiling and volatile period (“Burn, baby, burn”) in the not so far back past, the monograph, Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties, created by the Brooklyn Museum for its exhibition including over a 100 artists response to the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.The exhibition honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 consists of works by Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, David Hammons,Melvin Edwards,Richard Avedon, Bruce Davidson, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, and Philip Gusto.
And as police dogs, high pressure fire hoses,burned out churches, maimed and murdered Emmett Till and truncheon wielding police are part of the American history, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle edited by Martin Berger, stands as testimony of the barely acknowledged story of depredations suffered by American blacks.Bob Adelman, Fredrick Baldwin, Dr Doris Derby, Benedict Fernandez,Bob Fitch, Matt Herron. Bill Hudson, Danny Lyon. Charles Moore and Chamian Reading
Berger curatorial vision includes and goes beyond the handful of iconic photographs that have some currency in the popular contemporary history. As the book’s’ title suggests goes beyond the accepted record. As the publisher notes,
Martin Berger presents a collection of forgotten photographs that illustrate the action, heroism, and strength of black activists in driving social and legislative change. Freedom Now! highlights the power wielded by black men, women, and children in courthouses, community centers, department stores, political conventions, schools, and streets.
Perhaps citizens of the USA ought take a page from the Jews (as unlikely as that maybe) and designate one day a year as a day of atonement—I know the day I would choose.
* Baldwin begins his soliloquy at 11:22 of The 50 Year Argument
Currently reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Knopf)
Acquiring knowledge serendipitously is a mostly a joyful happenstance—much like taking a different route to a destination to an oft travelled-to destination. Anyway, I had not known about Martin Scorsese’s HBO documentary, The Fifty Year Argument until I saw a reference to a review jauntily entitled “There’s a Lot of Gray Hair in Martin Scorsese’s Documentary on The New York Review of Books” in Vogue (having a grasshopper mind I immediately wondered how many people who read Vogue read the New York Review?) The film’s subject is of courseThe New York Review of Books, the world’s preeminent literary publication, and it’s beatific founding and continuing editor, Robert Silver. I read Nathaniel Heller’s essay and requested the film from HBO. Even as a I watched the The Fifty Year Argument I thought that Heller had viewed a film different than I that which I was watching. His critique read like a judgment on a bottle of wine based on the meal it was served with.
“The origin of the Review has been documented and it should suffice it to cite Robert Silver”When we started the paper we weren’t seeking to be part of the establishment. We were seeking quite the opposite…to examine the workings and truthfulness of establishments,whether political or cultural.”
There a number of riveting snippets—James Baldwin pointing out that “black people didn’t event the nigger, white people did.” And a youthful and beguiling Susan Sontag asking (well actually, telling) Norman Mailer his use of the word ‘lady was offensive. And Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show have entertaining verbal dust up with Mailer accusing Vidal of connecting him to Charles Manson. And Zoe Heller charmingly explaining that the Review educated her adding it probably was the case for others “even though they would never admit it.” And Darryl Pickney talking about his 13 year old self riding in a car on the way to Disneyland,sitting between his two sisters, reading James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. You get the idea, yes?
It should also be noted that one of the impetuses for the Review was Elizabeth Hardwick’s famous (in the literary world) 1959 Harper’s piece The Decline of Book Reviewing:
For the world of books, for readers and writers, the torpor of the New York Times Book Review is more affecting. There come to mind all those high-school English teachers, those faithful librarians and booksellers, those trusting suburbanites, those bright young men and women in the provinces, all those who believe in the judgment of the Times and who need its direction. The worst result of its decline is that it acts as a sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally. The flat praise and the faint dissension, the minimal style and the light little article, the absence of involvement, passion, character, eccentricity — the lack, at last, of the literary tone itself — have made the New York Times into a provincial literary journal, longer and thicker, but not much different in the end from all those small-town Sunday “Book Pages.” (The New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, the news and opinion weeklies, the literary magazines all devote a good deal of space and thought to the reviewing of books. The often awkward and the always variable results should not go unremarked. However, in these magazines the reviews are only a part of the claim upon the reader’s attention, and the peculiar disappointments of the manner in which books are sometimes treated cannot be understood without a close study of each magazine as a whole.
Is it 1959 all over again?
And finally, the New York Review was from the beginning steadfastly against the Bushist Iraqi adventure. To its everlasting credit…
Currently reading Prince of Los Cocuyos by Richard Blanco (Ecco)
The other day I took note of the fact that I still have a paper shredder( a Michael Graves design). And for the first time I questioned my need for this appliance. I assume that any paper I might consider shred worthy is in a file somewhere accessible to at least the thousands of employees and contractors of United States security agencies and major technological and financial corporations.So why bother?
I doubt anyone will be writing songs about secrets as the disappearance of privacy seems to be coextensive with the loss of personal secrecy—what music will be played while the Global Security State’s lust for secrecy runs rampant and roughshod—I’m thinking the second movement of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” 7th Symphony would be fitting? Need I expand on the idea that current notions of secrecy dwell in the far simpler past, when one’s privacy was not being actively shredded by the government and technologically savvy enterprises whose methods ranged from aggressive data mining to poaching. Of course there is also rendition and drone bombing but the US government wouldn’t do such to its own citizens. How would we know?
We know because under relentless persecution and ceaseless duress, a number of people have stepped forward to wake the USA’s slumbering citizens to what should alarm many sentient rational beings. You may have heard of US Army intel analyst PFCChelsea Manning* (known as Bradley Manning)or National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden**. Were it not for this pair of loyal Americans, among others, we would still be staring at the cave wall(note my clever reference to Socrates Allegory of the Cave).
Tom Englehardt who publishes Tomdispatch(“A Regular Antidote to the Mainstream Media”), one of a handful of web journals that view US culture and governance with righteously critical eye (with contributions from Rebecca Solnit, Bill McKibben, Mike Davis, Chalmers Johnson, Michael Klare, Adam Hochschild, Robert Lipsyte, Glenn Greenwald Elizabeth de la Vega and Nick Turse), has just published Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books) which scrutinizes what he terms a burgeoning “Global Security State”:
… You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of “spycraft” gains its own name: LOVEINT.
…no one considered it a problem that the country lacked 17 overlapping outfits bent on preventing approximately 400,000 deaths by firearms in the same years; nor 17 interlocked agencies dedicated to safety on our roads, where more than 450,000 Americans have died since 9/11. (An American, it has been calculated, is 1,904 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.) Almost all the money and effort have instead been focused on the microscopic number of terrorist plots — some spurred on by FBI plants.
Unknown knowns or Known unknowns?
Ninety one year old Herr Professor Kissinger is still at it. The former Nixon henchman, who at the least has shown an indifference to the human carnage wrought by his diplomatic endeavors and at the most may by international law standards be a war criminal, has a new tome, World Order (Penguin Press). Hilary Clinton observes:
When Americans look around the world today, we see one crisis after another….the liberal international order that the United States has worked for generations to build and defend seems to be under pressure from every quarter.
…Henry Kissinger explains the historic scope of this challenge. His analysis, despite some differences over specific policies, largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and cooperation for the 21st century.
…We need to have an honest conversation together — all of us — about the costs and imperatives of global leadership, and what it really takes to keep our country safe and strong.
We have a lot to talk about. Sometimes we’ll disagree. But that’s what democracy is all about. A real national dialogue is the only way we’re going to rebuild a political consensus to take on the perils and the promise of the 21st century. Henry Kissinger’s book makes a compelling case for why we have to do it and how we can succeed.
Setting aside the question of whether one buys into Kissinger’s realpolitik view of the “liberal international order”, one gasps at the fantasy of “rebuilding a political consensus” through “a real national dialogue.”If somebody could point out to me what political consensus is being rebuilt and when the last “real national dialogue” occurred I can begin to breathe again.
Now though it ought not go unsaid that Henry Kissinger is a competent student of history who echoes centuries (think Count Metternich)of realpolitikspeak the uber-ubiquitous mandarin Walter Issakson bloviates:
…Because he and Nixon failed to weave in the idealism that is ingrained in the American DNA, popular support for their realist edifice was precarious, as if built of bricks without straw. Kissinger was attacked by moral idealists of the left and, more notably, by the nascent neoconservatives and ardent anticommunists on the right.
Kissinger ends his latest book on a different note, one of humility—a trait that for most of his career he was better at humorously feigning than at actually possessing. “Long ago, in youth, I was brash enough to think myself able to pronounce on ‘The Meaning of History,’” he writes. “I now know that history’s meaning is a matter to be discovered, not declared.”
The key to Kissinger’s foreign policy realism, and the theme at the heart of his magisterial new book, is that such humility is important not just for people but also for nations, even the U.S. Making progress toward a world order based on “individual dignity and participatory governance” is a lofty ideal, he notes. “But progress toward it will need to be sustained through a series of intermediate stages.”
“Magisterial” new book? Oh my. Isaakson would be more creditable if he thought to acknowledge that Nobel Peace Prize Winner Kissinger’s*** approaches to Vietnam, Iran & Iraq, Chile, East Timor etc. assured the “failure of weaving in the idealism that is ingrained in the American DNA.” One can’t help but wonder what the late, lamented Christopher Hitchens would have made of Kissinger’s latest humble foreign policy decrees.
* The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story of the Suspect Behind the Largest Security Breach in U.S. History by Chase Madar (OR Books)
** No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald (Metropolitan Books)
*** The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens (Verso)
Currently reading Scribe by Bob Ryan (Bloomsbury)
The last time (September 2011) I interviewed novelist, literary critic, Agni editor, Boston University mentor ,father of two boys, Billy Giraldi at the Keltic Krust ,was the first time we met. Three years later, Giraldi has published his second novel, Hold The Dark (WW Norton/Liveright) and written innumerable literary critiques for The Daily Beast, Oxford American, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review and the New York Times and most recently a review of James Franco’s latest directorial effort,Child of God>And my favorite local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust, has closed.
Giraldi and I have become friends such that the occasionally glib gabfest that follows might give the impression that he is not a serious literatus. He is. Below he and I address a number of artistic and existential issues as well as his second novel,set in a remote Alaskan lanscape, characters transversing a fierce and foreboding terrain. People die. Wolves howl. So read on, dear reader, read on:
RB: Let’s do a little play acting, a little role playing. We’re at a party— play along. Hi, what do you do?
WG: I chase after my kids in Cambridge and try to make sure they aren’t maimed on the way to becoming upstanding citizens.
RB: I mean what do you do for work?
WG: That is work, Red ['Red' being my nom de guerre].
RB: What do you do for money?
WG: Boston University pays me to entertain their many colorful customers.
RB: Can you just tell me what you do?
WG: I teach them essay writing and the proper ways of reading.
RB: That’s how you would answer? That’s your first answer? You would not say,” I am a writer?”
WG: You asked what I do for money, Red. Samuel Johnson’s infamous quip notwithstanding, who writes for money?
RB: Okay, let’s go real here, enough role playing. You do several kinds of writing—novels, essays, literary criticism. Is there one that gives you more pleasure than the others?
WG: Yes, the criticism.
RB: Then why bother with the fiction?
WG: Because no one wants to pay me for criticism.
RB: So you do write for money!
WG: We’re talking pittances here. No publisher wants essays, but magazines need them, and I can use the pittance to help feed the ravenous little monsters who live in my house. You wouldn’t believe how they eat.
RB: What does the New Republic pay you? They do pay you?
WG: All the venues I write for pay me, yes, but I mean my editor at Norton isn’t interested in a book of criticism because he wouldn’t be able to sell it.
RB: Are you a regular contributor now at the New Republic?
WG: I’ve done a bunch of pieces for them, on Orwell, on Kafka, on Primo Levi. I’m not sure how regular that is.
RB: Primo Levi. You’re not qualified, are you? You’re not Jewish.
WG: I’m even less qualified to do Orwell and Kafka, but one fakes it as well as one can.
RB: So why do you gravitate to literary criticism as opposed to other forms?
WG: It allows me to engage in what most compels me—
RB: And impress people with your vocabulary.
WG: Let’s not underestimate that, okay. But it allows me to use what I know, and let’s me comprehend authors and books in a way that I couldn’t without writing about them. I understand Kafka better after writing about him. That’s my only mission.
RB: So you want to work out your own understanding of literature. But you must begin with a certain understanding, so you refine that understanding—is that what’s going on?
WG: That has to happen, yes, and certainly with someone such as Kafka. Everyone begins with certain popular conceptions of Kafka. People know the basics—about The Metamorphoses, some of the stories such as “In the Penal Colony”—but the trick is to transcend those popular conceptions and arrive at a more complex or nuanced place. Reading all of Kafka, delving into his body of work—which is what I do every time I write about an important author—you come away with a view very different from general conceptions.
RB: Do you know Jay Cantor’s book of stories about Kafka [Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka]? He objects to the overuse of the word “Kafkaesque.”
WG: I say the same in my piece. Not only do I object to it, but I’m certain that it’s a meaningless term. Kafka won’t be reduced to an adjective.
RB: People are using words they don’t have an understanding of and referring to a writer whom they probably haven’t read.
WG: Shocking, I know. In my piece, I speak about the occasion when I knew we’d entered the point of no return with the word “Kafkaesque.” It was in a movie theater, looking at an abomination called Congo, adapted from an equal abomination vomited by Michael Crichton. Don’t ask why I went to see this: I was young and I believe a beautiful girl was involved. But one character uses the word “Kafkaesque” so egregiously and erroneously—referring to a murderous band of apes, I believe—that I knew the word would never recover any meaning. Harold Bloom prefers “Kafkan.” That’s an improvement, though perhaps the difference between nothing and nothing much.
RB: How about “Kafkoid”? I mean, language is a living thing. How about the now great overuse of the word “epic”? You have to hang around with some teenagers, because “epic” is a big word now. It’s like saying “awesome.” This is what I’m hearing.
WG: Language is a living thing only in the hands of potent writers. But, you know, about “epic,” that’s not good, Red, because—
RB: Will you stop looking at your own book . . .
WG: Well, I’m just looking at what Dennis Lehane said about Hold the Dark: “A taut, muscular, and often unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness. Epic, relentless, and beautifully realized.”
RB: And Kafkaesque. You wanna read all the blurbs now?
WG: I’ve got to say, Red, that use of “epic” sounds not bad there, referring to my little tale.
RB: Well, I guess we might as well talk about your book.
WG: Can I jar a memory in you? When we first met, when Busy Monsters came out, you told me you didn’t really like the novel but it still made you want to talk to me. Now, now let’s hear what the guy has to say about Hold the Dark.
RB: I’ll always want to talk to you because you use the word “raven” as a verb. But they’re very different books, and frankly, I never thought of you as the writer of Busy Monsters, and it wasn’t the kind of novel I’d usually read. I don’t know why I read it, but I did, and I wasn’t even paid to do it. But Hold the Dark is the kind of novel I’d read, and not just because of the other novelists some reviewers are referencing. Actually, I can think of some women writers who come close to Hold the Dark: Bonnie Jo Campbell is great, and the Australian Courtney Collins. They set their stories in remote regions where nature intrudes upon the narrative, where people are outsiders. I think of them as anti New York novels, surroundings you aren’t familiar with, no brand names, no career strivings and divorces. Hard to be original with shit like that.
WG: A bored writer of letters-to-the-editor wrote in to the New York Times to complain about the favorable review of Hold the Dark. This was some unstrung fella in the wilds of Colorado, and his complaint was that I was an “urban elite” who had no business writing about the wilderness.
RB: Right. What do you know about Alaska?
WG: Anyone who’s lived through a New England winter knows enough about snow and ice to imagine what kind of cold breathes in other corners of America. But that was sweet of this person who never learned to read fiction, to call me an “urban elite”—the first word is technically accurate and the second word is always a compliment to my ears. What’s the opposite of elite?
RB: Right, and he was really recognizing the novelist’s chore, wasn’t he. You’re only allowed to write about traffic patterns in Cambridge and picking up your kids from school. That’s what you should be limited to. I guess I have to ask you: did you write the book you set out to write? Or did it change as you went along?
WG: It is, yes. To the degree that any novelist understands what lies beneath, I wrote the book I had envisioned.
RB: What drove it? Character, setting, plot?
WG: No, language. It’s always language—language as it relates to character. This is the difference between commercial fiction and fiction that aims for something more: the former is a mere public service message and the latter is an investigation into the durability and limits of language. Hold the Dark has been characterized as a literary thriller, and someone called it “action literature,” which defies meaning, I think. I’m not sure where they’re coming from because the novel is very much about the enigma of evil and the majesty of nature; it’s about a spiritual crisis that morphs into a spiritual quest. I’ve been lucky in my reviewers because almost all of them have spoken to the pitch of the language, to the tenor of the prose—without some cognizance of that, the novel loses its significance.
RB: It is sort of surprising to take a very raw landscape and terrain, with very nonurban or unsophisticated people, and apply a sophisticated, descriptive, specific language to them. You’re intricate in your descriptions of everything that takes place in this story.
WG: The landscape dictates its own language. Every novel demands its own style. As for the intricate descriptions, my editor pushed me in that direction—
RB: Robert Weil?
WG: The great Robert Weil. He pushed me to bring to life the village of Keelut in a more detailed way. I had the wilderness down, but he wanted that village to pop, and he was right, as usual.
RB: Hey, you live in Cambridge!
WG: Read enough Jack London and all of sudden you live on the edge of the Yukon.
RB: He didn’t have to deal with climate change.
WG: What a coincidence. We aren’t really dealing with it either.
RB: But you’ve never been to Alaska. So few people have.
WG: So it then becomes a question of audacity. Goethe says this, that a writer must have “a touch of audacity” if he wishes to make a work of art. In my wishes for this novel, I needed much more than a touch—I needed a kick of audacity to imagine that terrain, a terrain I deliberately did not visit for fear of turning this novel into loyal reportage, another fact-filled dispatch. For the longest time, the novel had no specific setting at all. Remoteness, ice and snow—that was it. The story could have been taking place on the moon, for all anybody could have known.
RB: Where would the wolves have come from?
WG: Imaginative literature doesn’t or shouldn’t care about those questions. I was fine with the namelessness of the locale, but my publisher wouldn’t have been. The Alaskan wild is an inherently mysterious place—a domain that keeps its secrets well and has a complete separation from the normal rules of existence. Behavior is different there, an outlaw spirit that pervades that territory. If somebody would say that I’m taking a rather big risk in writing about a place only from imagination—
RB: Who would say that?
WG: Somebody with a conviction against the freedom of imagination. A philistine, in other words.
RB: When you critique a book, do you talk about an author risking something?
WG: I have, yes. No risks, no rewards—isn’t that the cliché? But one’s heroes give one the bravery to take big risks in fiction. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having taken part in the Civil War—he was born six years after the end of the war. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King before he had ever step foot in Africa. Kurt Vonnegut obviously never rocketed to Mars or a moon of Saturn. I won’t adhere to that fallow idea that says fiction should be reportage. I could have spent a year in Alaska and turned this novel into a demographical study, a meteorological report, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of literature. Novels are a product of the imagination or else they are gussied-up newspaper articles, another useless simulacrum of reality.
RB: Right, that’s the key task. You just reminded me of Edward P. Jones’s second novel, The Known World, the one that took him a long time to write. Sections of the book have amazing verisimilitude to various legal functions and court transactions, taking place around the time of the Civil War, and he simply made it all up. I had a history professor write me once to say that she was offended that a novelist was having his way with history, and I told her, It says on the book “novel.” Why do people have these expectation of fiction? And they’re not half as critical of nonfiction.
WG: I’d guess they suffer from a bankruptcy of imagination.
RB: How about poor education? Poor training?
WG: I’ve met entire gangs of über educated people with PhDs in English who were the most imaginatively deprived souls in a hundred-mile radius, the sort who would read a novel and report that it didn’t “feel” real to them, as if their feelings have anything at all to do with the novel.
RB: Isn’t the key internal coherence, that a book is obliged only to be sensible within its own setting?
WG: Within its own architecture, yes. The bolts and the beams of the narrative need to fit only within the novel’s own structure and shouldn’t be worried about corresponding to any outside formula of comprehension. Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and countless others would be inconceivable any other way.
RB: Is your main character in Hold the Dark evil? Is Vernon Slone evil?
WG: That depends on the guidelines by which you’re judging him. By the standards of civilization, he can be called evil, yes, though let me say that he would have hurt no one if only he could have been left alone, left to his own course. By the standards of the wilderness, which are the only standards that hold sway in this story, he is not evil, no. That’s one of the chief conflicts of Hold the Dark: the agon between the rules of the wild and the proprieties of society. By Slone’s DNA, by the precepts of his own land, he behaves precisely as he needs to behave in order to achieve his ends. Slone and Cheeon both—Cheeon, his best friend in the novel—both are sociopathic and would never last a day in Boston, true, but they abide by an ancient code of devotion, a code of blood and bond and myth and bone. They are loyal to one another and that’s dignity of a kind. We’ve forgotten about the bonds of blood, the fidelity of tribe. Their devotion is wordless. Remember, they don’t speak one word to each other throughout the entire novel.
RB: Are we to understand what the moral firmament is in the wilderness? For instance, what justifies those first two murders?
WG: The protection of kin. The punishment of outsiders for meddling with a people and place better left alone. Those two detectives are killed because they are close to finding Medora Slone and Vernon Slone won’t allow that. Medora is Vernon’s to find. Those murders results from an intrusion into territory, which is exactly what I expect would happen if you barged into a bear’s den. This Alaskan territory is a bear’s den—Vernon Slone and Cheeon are the bears.
RB: I wondered about the path that Cheeon took because I think implicit in it is his belief that Slone is going to get caught.
WG: Why do you say that?
RB: Because if he doesn’t believe that Slone is going to get caught, is he aiding Slone’s getaway in mowing down ten or twelve men? And not only doing that, but essentially doing suicide by police.
WG: What’s in Cheeon’s mind during that rampage? Perhaps that the more of these cops he can kill, the fewer will be around to capture Slone. But also, and this is important: they came knocking. They came to him. There wouldn’t have been a rampage if he had been left alone, and that was what I really liked about John Wilwol’s review in the New York Times. He understood that. Don’t come knocking where you don’t belong because you’ll find something fatal. The cops from town and the Feds from the city, they come to this remote place and they attempt to assert their business where it doesn’t fit. Cheeon’s rampage is a retribution and a warning: stay where you belong or there will be these cataclysmic consequences.
RB: À la Ruby Ridge.
WG: I can see the connection. Cheeon’s massacre is a message in extremis. The suicide by cop is really the only outcome for him. His little girl is dead, taken by a wolf; his wife has fled never to return; he knows he’ll never be able to see Slone again. After what’s happened, Slone will be on the run always. Cheeon says to Donald Marium, the detective, he says: The wolf has come for you and me today. The raven follows the wolf, he says, and he points up into a tree and there’s the raven, death’s omen, peering down at them. Remember, he booby-traps his cabin: he’s been waiting for this. From the beginning he’s known they would come for him.
RB: Minor thing, but both Slone and Cheeon, when they’re talking to others, they use the word “guy” where most men who use the word “man” or “dude.” Is that an Alaskanism?
WG: I’m not sure. I’ve heard some Canadians use “guy” in place of “man” or “dude.” It sounds slightly wrong to our ear, and I like that about it, that quality of otherness.
RB: Another illegitimate step in your fabrication. I was thinking, today I harkened back to your controversial review in the New York Times two years ago, that negative review you seemed to draw so much fire for. One particular piece was on the website HTML Giant, in which the writer actually thought to instruct you on what a review should be and how you had failed miserably, and I thought, God, on the face of it, how fucking pretentious to think that he could instruct you. Because one of the things he said is that you have to deal with a book on its own terms, but don’t you also have to deal with a review on its own terms? Was that kerfuffle ever resolved intelligently?
WG: Are internetting nobodies capable of intelligence or resolution? No, the fracas you speak of happened among those internetting nobodies, the synthetically social on social media, so I wasn’t party to it. I don’t partake of social media and I’m not on the internet that much. I’ve never heard of that web site you mentioned but it sounds to me like a haven for the mentally miniscule. I wrote a piece called “Letter to a Young Critic,” my ars poetica, because my editor at the Daily Beast asked for it, but other than that, and receiving a thousand emails of support, I didn’t experience the fracas as others did. My son Aiden was a few months old at the time and nothing focuses the mind like diapers and a screaming newborn.
RB: Do you care? Once having established what you were confident was a well presented argument, did you want to hear counter arguments?
WG: A prepared critic knows there are no counter arguments.
RB: Do you care about being nice as a critic?
WG: Naughty or nice is irrelevant. The question doesn’t exist. The critic’s only concern is right or wrong, true or false. The emphasis on delivery is a dodge, a way of not dealing with the argument. Unpopular causes often rely on the aesthetics of delivery because their foes wear the face of gruesome banality. Let me point out also, for the record, that of the scores and scores of books I’ve written about, only two reviews have been negative, and one was mixed.
RB: All of the top venues you write for, not just the New Republic but the Oxford American and VQR and numerous others, is a recognition of your legitimacy as a critic—you’re guilty by association with some good minds. You must write 5000 words a week for these various magazines. Don’t you set aside other things to do that?
WG: I do, and I need to stop, or this next book will never get done.
RB: Another novel? You have a contract?
WG: The contract I have is for a memoir, believe it or not, and I’m very conflicted about this, Red.
RB: Make it all up.
WG: I’m very conflicted. Speaking of the Oxford American, I just filed a piece about this, about autobiography, as it pertains to the Southern documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, the great director who did Sherman’s March.
RB: I used to live near McElwee. Do you like Errol Morris’s films?
WG: I’m not a big film guy. I became interested in McElwee because his nephew is a pal of mine. But I’m spottily educated on film.
RB: I don’t want to bring up that you just reviewed the film Child of God at the New Republic.
WG: That was a rather rare exception; I know that novel like a prayer.
RB: You didn’t mention The Counselor in that piece. Do you know that movie?
WG: No. It’s not based on one of the novels. Did you like it?
RB: Sucked, but had some great parts. Cameron Diaz masturbating on the windshield of a car.
WG: That’s so sweet of her.
RB: She might have been the most interesting character in the film.
WG: When you look like Cameron Diaz that’s not hard. Someone once tried to talk to me about the movie There’s Something About Mary—remember that one?—and I asked this person if he ever considered that the something in question about Mary was that she looked just like Cameron Diaz.
RB: Something else I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been trying to reconcile a view I have of serious versus genre literature. When I was a kid it wasn’t like you either did sports or you read, either one or the other. You just read, it was like breathing. Now there’s this whole genre in which people write about reading. I don’t know why they do that. Like that book you reviewed recently in the New York Times, by Wendy Lesser.
WG: Lesser’s book in particular is a deft analysis of certain works of literature and how they function, how they cast their spell. It’s criticism, in other words, not a memoir about reading, which, you’re right, strikes me as a rather yawnful undertaking. The answer to the question why do you read is actually pretty straightforward: I read for pleasure and for intimations of wisdom. Dryden says this, right, that poesy instructs as it delights, but not one without the other.
RB: I.B. Singer said the same thing.
WG: The notion predates both Singer and Dryden. Horace called it dulce et utile: sweet and useful.
RB: Oh boy, I knew you would do this, get all classical on me. Didn’t Horace play for the Pirates, Horace Wagner?
WG: Focus, Red, stay with me. The Horatian prescription of dulce et utile was codified throughout the Renaissance and endured mostly in tact until the contagion of French theory, sneezed by Derrida and de Man, infected American academics in the middle of the last century. But maybe that’s too highfalutin an answer to your Pittsburgh Pirates question.
RB: No shit, Sherlock.
WG: Can we use profanity in this conversation?
RB: Oh yeah, and especially because you need to be more of a hard guy, given Hold the Dark and your author photo, wearing that hat.
WG: I don’t use profanity because—
RB: You’re Catholic.
WG: I was gonna say sophisticated, but you’re right. Lapsed Catholic, actually, but it amounts to the same thing.
RB: Well, your vocabulary far outstrips mine, but remember I grew up in Chicago.
WG: I grew up in New Jersey, Red. That state ain’t exactly a bastion of intellectualism.
RB: But it was the suburbs. But here’s the thing—
WG: I suppose. It was really just a tiny greaser town full of Polish car mechanics and Italian carpenters. Here’s the thing what?
RB: Right, here’s the thing: in my reading, I certainly don’t adhere to any literary theory, have never even read half of the people you mention, whatever their names are. Today, I value John le Carré as much as Robert Stone—
WG: Didn’t you and I have a fight about le Carré, over his stance relating to Rushdie in the 80s?
RB: I think if you go back and read his stance it wasn’t as obnoxious as it might have seemed at the time. Let’s say he fucked up, everybody fucks up, but the thing of it is, I don’t have a benchmark I check off and say, Oh yeah, this is a great book and this is a terrible book. It’s all flying by the seat. And less and less do I remember content. I was talking to David Mitchell* last week. I remember loving Cloud Atlas and I can’t tell you a thing about it.
WG: Then what in God’s name did you love in it?
RB: At the time I read it, I found it to be entertaining and instructive. Like in his new book: he’s a reminder that what’s in front of you isn’t necessarily all that’s going on. He writes stuff, fantasy elements, that I don’t think I’d ever read by somebody else. He does it very deftly. You haven’t managed to read him?
WG: I’ve managed not to read lots of writers.
RB: That’s understandable. I’ve never read Updike and I didn’t read Roth until recently.
WG: Have you still never read Updike?
WG: I should leave now.
RB: Oh, that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh. We’re gonna judge each other.
WG: Critics judge, that’s there job. It’s extraordinary that you’ve never read Updike.
RB: Listen, when I was in Chicago, I associated Updike with pipe-smoking, tweedy types.
WG: That’s a very wrong association.
RB: Remember, I come from the town of Nelson Algren.
WG: Oh, tough guy, Algren. You remember Hemingway’s blurb about Algren? He said Algren was the second best writer in America.
RB: That’s right, I do know that.
WG: So, yes, we can judge one another by the books we read, and I don’t necessarily mean in that Leavisite manner of turning literature into an ethical audit by which we assert our puritanical values—all you had to do was tell F. R. Leavis what books you read and then he told you your moral coordinates.
RB: We certainly judge people by their friends and the teams they root for. Modern commerce and the Internet does the same thing: give me fifteen metrics and I’ll tell you all these things about you. Amazon does that: buy a book and they’ll tell you what other books you like. Frequently there’s commonality there. When bookstores hand-sell stuff they do the same thing. Music, the same thing. Speaking of which, you never review music, do you?
WG: I just did a piece on Jack White for the Oxford American. But mostly I’m not qualified to review music. The Jack White piece is more about artistic obsession. After the White Stripes it was difficult for me to listen to other music, just as Bellow’s Augie March ruined other books for me for several years.
RB: What would qualify you to write about music?
WG: Some knowledge of musicality, of music history, of melody and tone, a wider range of listening than I have. This applies to literary criticism, as well. Some seem to think that if they can read and are able to have an emotion and an opinion that they are qualified for literary comment. That’s not correct at all. One’s feelings do not translate into criticism. Edmund Wilson said this in the 40s, that our culture of literary comment was puerile and overcome by critics who mistake their emotions for analysis. One’s feelings matter not at all where criticism is concerned.
WG: Really. One sees this all the time. This book feels contrived to me. This plot feels unfinished. This character doesn’t feel likable. It’s nonsense. Demonstrate what you think and how you think it and you’ll be on to something.
WG: Not only that, and not primarily that.
RB: The failure of such a review would be saying that’s the irreducible statement you’re making, about feelings. Whereas the obligation is, for a critic, if you feel something, you have to unpack and explicate what that’s about.
WG: We partly agree.
RB: I think I can write about music, that I’m qualified, in that I have a wide swath of familiarity with lots of music. So even though I don’t know music theory I think by association and by a sense of definition I can talk skillfully about music.
WG: And how it’s arranged and composed. I thought I could do the same, on a minimal level, with Jack White, and get away with it: the way Jack plays guitar, the difference between his playing style and that of others. I agree that art needs to aim for the chest but if it’s not also aiming for the head then the artist has done only half his task. Otherwise criticism becomes only a matter of opinion informed by emotion, and not knowledge or insight earned through expertise. Some opinions are more valid than others, are they not?
RB: I think yes, I would agree with that. But the thing about art is the high ratio of subjectivity that permissible. I don’t think there are theories and generalities that cover the arts.
WG: But one can prove how one book is better than another.
RB: Prove it to me. Prove to me that As I Lay Dying is a better book than Catch-22.
WG: Two masterpieces, equal in what they do, although they do it in different ways. The distinction I mean is the one that must be made between the first-rate and the second-rate. Look at the pitch, the modulations, the reach of the prose. Word by word, sentence by sentence, the superior book proves itself.
RB: The Times review of Hold the Dark repeated that idea of yours, or quoted you, saying that somewhere. And now? Any obsessions?
WG: And now I have no obsessions, which is as it should be for a man about to be clobbered by middle age.
RB: Have you done any readings in Boston, from the Hold the Dark?
RB: No one will have you?
WG: I’m tired. I don’t want to perform. It doesn’t sell books anyway. It’s just a lot of pressure on the writer and pressure on the bookstore, too.
RB: So what’s the next thing?
WG: That memoir I was telling you about, God help me.
RB: Which you’ve started, or not?
WG: Yes. God, I don’t want to think about it.
RB: Am I gonna have to go through the next two or three years listening to you piss and moan about this every time we get together? Why don’t you just give up these book-length projects and stick to essays?
WG: You know what I’d like to give up?
RB: And become a bounty hunter?
WG: Farmer maybe. I don’t know anything about it, but I like the way it looks.
RB: Why do you want to give up writing?
WG: Because it’s work and it’s hard and I don’t like work and especially not hard work.
RB: Oh stop about how tough it is. You wanna go pick strawberries in the fields?
WG: That sounds lovely. Walter Benjamin said that a writer must proceed as a man digging a ditch. Ever dig a ditch?
RB: How many fucking ditches have you dug?
WG: My fair share. Need I remind you I come from a working-class family of builders? I’ve dug many a ditch. My point is: writing is difficult and if it’s not difficult then you’re not doing it right.
RB: Okay so you’re a novelist, a critic, an essayist, a teacher, an editor. Anything we’re not knowing about you? You have aspirations?
WG: Wilde said ambition is the last refuge of the failure, so my aspirations are skimpy. I want to raise my boys with as little psychic trauma as possible.
RB: Good luck with that, as they say.
WG: It’s my goal.
RB: And you’re going to do that because you’re a picture of mental health? Why are you qualified to do that?
WG: One must try, Red.
RB: I know. Everybody wants to be a better parent than their parents.
WG: And so we’ve come full circle. This little chat of ours began with my kids and now ends with my kids.
RB: Commendable, I know, but bullshit, too, because if you were at a party holding a glass of wine you wouldn’t answer that question by saying you’re a father.
WG: Well, that’s easy, Red, because I’d never be at that party.
* David Mitchell Conversation 2005
There are not many things one can look forward to in this benighted age. It used to be that one could count on a novel from the the late and lamented Elmore Leonard with regularity (one hopes that his estate doesn’t go the crass and sham “Elmore Leonard novel written by…” route). One thing that I look forward to with gleeful expectation is receiving Oxford University Press’s annual update of their Atlas of the World every October. Given my vow to avoid being treated as a bovine and thus never fly again (unless I am granted 1st class ducats), most of my traveling is left to my trusty vintage ragtop and an imagination sparked by luxurious and vivid tomes like OUP’s Atlases.
As the Oxford University Press points out the Atlas of the World -21st Edition is the only world atlas updated annually.There is a 48-page Introduction to World Geography and detailed presentations of crucial geographic issues —food and water supply,global conflict, human health,standards of living, climate change,biodiversity, energy, and landforms. The 21st edition has a six-page special on “The Future of the Oceans and Seas,” and eleven new images acquired from NASA’s latest Earth Observation Satellite, Landsat 8. Per usual the hundreds of city and world maps in the Atlas have been rigorously updated as well as the inclusion of innumerable obscure by interesting details. Measuring 14 inches by 18 inches, its a splendidly reproduced book, worthy of any coffee or kitchen table.
Maps: their untold stories by Rose Mitchell, Andrew Janes (Bloomsbury)
Just as cordless and smart phones have obviated the need for remembering phone numbers, Global Positioning devices have made map reading an elective activity. Maps: their untold stories by Rose Mitchell, Andrew Janes (Bloomsbury)collects maps from 14th Century manuscripts, through early estate maps, to sea charts, maps used in military campaigns, and maps from treaties, all drawn from Britain’s National Archives.It’s a thoughtfully curated collection with explications of some odd maps and their uses such (to quote the book’s website)”a woodcut map of 16th Century London, a map of where the bombs fell during the Second World War, and a map the first American settlers’ drew when they were attempting to establish a new empire on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina…the map of the Great Exhibition in 1851 that was presented on a lady’s glove, a London Underground map in the form of a cucumber, and a Treasure Island map used to advertise National Savings.”
Being far and long removed from the age of exploration when the only means of long distance travel were horses and ships and the planet was a great expanse of unknown we take knowledge of our geographical position for granted.Needless to say it was not always so— Ships, Clocks, and Stars:The Quest for Longitude(Harper Design) by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt recounts the eighteenth-century quest to solve the so-called “longitude problem” and thus accurately verify a ship’s position at sea. Well illustrated with more than 150 photographs from Britain’s National Maritime Museum,this is one of the great scientific adventure stories.
The 10th edition of National Geographic Atlas of the World coincides with the 100th anniversary of National Geographic cartography. Completely updated and expanded by sixteen pages,this titanic slip cased tome (12″ x 17″) is an authoritative reference and includes the largest and most comprehensive collection of political maps ever published by National Geographic. The update includes new maps of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, three detailed regional maps of Australia, expanded coverage of Africa, and a map of the strategically important area around the Mediterranean Sea, encompassing North Africa and Southern Europe. There is an expanded place-name index with more than 150,00 entires, and separate undersea, Moon, and Mars features. The sizable back matter includes flags and facts for all 195 extant nations, geographic comparisons, world time zones, metric conversion tables, and such.
Currently reading The Perfect Spy by John LeCarre (Penguin)