Karl Ove Knausgaard, “A Death in the Family” (2009) (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini) – It must be a real bonanza for small-language translators when a Karl Ove Knausgaard or a Halldor Laxness or an Ismail Kadare comes along, huh? Like all the Norwegian or Icelandic or Albanian translators coming out of the woodwork, getting their big moment…
Anyway, this is the first in a six-novel series where the author, an artsy Norwegian Gen Xer, relates his life in excruciating detail. The series gets a lot of Proust comparisons. I never got into Proust, I should probably try again. I didn’t get into Knausgaard either. I listened to it because every third audiobook I do, I try to listen to “important” “contemporary” literature. I remember when everyone was talking this guy up, and even the official dumb guy in the most prominent “dirtbag left” podcast talks about reading him, so, I figured I’d give it a try.
In the Proustian mode, Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel goes back and forth in time, following eccentric paths of association. For the most part, the first half of this book depicts Knausgaard’s childhood, roughly from age eight to age sixteen. The second half concerns what happens when his dad dies when the author is about thirty and just getting started in his literary career. The dad looms over a lot of the book- he’s a jerk, emotionally abusive, degenerates into alcoholism. But nothing can overshadow the great big I of Knausgaard himself. It’s Karl Ove, his feelings, his inner experiences, his minutely detailed recalling of his experiences: weather, clothes, the little mundane movements of people he converses with, that’s the attraction.
Ego can be a good thing for writers. Arguably, it’s a necessary thing, even for non-memoirists, the idea that your words are worth reading. But here’s the thing: Norwegians might be the most humorless people in the western world. In twenty-two hours of listening, I caught one (1) joke, and it was about Chekhov. Literature doesn’t need to be a laugh-a-minute to be legitimate. But A. Come on and B. Let’s talk tragedy. I know it has different meanings for different people. I’m somewhat old school in that I prefer the oldest meaning I know about- irresolvable conflict, brought on by what’s best in the conflicting bodies. You can argue Knausgaard’s series (called “My Struggle” because he’s a cute little prick, in spite of his perpetual long face) is about the greatest tragedy of all, in that sense, the tragedy of lived existence and its inevitable disappointments, culminating in death.
It was an interesting play, on the part of one faction of modernist writers, to roll the dice and try to sell normal life as tragic. Sometimes it pays off, artistically speaking, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s surely not what the Greeks had in mind, and another strain of modernism, following Nietzsche, went quite the other way in terms of their attitudes towards normal life, with, errr, interesting results. Of course, Knausgaard is a twenty-first century man (and a Gen Xer, if that means much in Norway), so awareness of his own consciousness, posturing and tragedy-seeking, is very much part of his deal.
What does it all add up to? One of my least favorite things in any kind of cultural production is the equation of “tragic” with “sad.” I know some people who do that and I don’t criticize them — they’re on their own journey — but I do not like it, especially from people who should know better. To be fair, Knausgaard is far too canny for that. But he basically only goes one notch above and makes an easy equation between “tragic” and “boring.” He makes pretty clear that this isn’t an abuse memoir. The point isn’t “my dad was an abusive prick and so I can’t enjoy life.” It’s just, “I can’t enjoy life, also, my dad is a prick” (I don’t think he uses the word “abusive” in relation to his father).
Basically, this is a long way around the barn of saying this book was boring. The language was nice. It probably would have bored me more in the hands of a less talented prose stylist. Not to get political, but contemporary Scandinavians are possibly the most comfortable, coddled group of people in human history. I know the Nordics are no utopia — have read enough Swedish crime novels to take that on board — and I know comfort is no guarantee of happiness, but you need to do more than Knausgaard does to make boredom interesting. It is possible. To me, this doesn’t manage it. I may look up the second book one of these days, but I’ve decided against going through the whole series sequentially in my audiobook-literature listening slot. You know, for those of you hanging on my reading selection news. **’
Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping” (1980) – This novel answers a question I didn’t know I had, lingering in my mind: “what would a serious literary novel look like if it were written by someone who could check all of these boxes at once: white, American, sincerely believing Protestant, writing after the 1960s?” I think some part of me, before looking in to Marilynne Robinson, basically assumed no one fit the bill. Serious WASP novelist, pre-sixties? Plenty. Serious contemporary PoC American Protestantism? Sure. Contemporary white American Protestants that don’t really believe it but like the community and do-gooding? Still kicking, here in Boston, original HQ of the kind of thing, especially, and probably some of them write novels. Serious contemporary American Protestants?Well, yes, though recent events call into question the sincerity of their belief versus their tribal affiliations… In any event, they don’t write “serious” novels (I’m racking my brain to think of them writing good “unserious,” i.e. genre, novels either… James Ellroy, I guess, but he’s the definition of a “special case”). They don’t do rigorous abstract thought. That’s why the right fills its jurist and serious functionary seats with Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and if the Trump movement continues, whackjobs from the Internet.
Look, I know, I get it. I shouldn’t focus on that. I should focus on the unpretentious spare beauty of the language, the meticulous but unostentatious concern for the worlds made by women, and the simple-yet-thorough humanity of the characters. Well, among other things, those attributes are probably among the reasons why I never thought to read any Marilynne Robinson before now. It’s not that I’m against them. It’s just that those things are prized by creative writing students. I have taken one writing course in my life and it was spring semester, 2005. Robinson doesn’t seem to get involved in controversies or other stuff that might grab a non-writing-student’s attention (well, she gets praised by Oprah, but that’s not a good vector for my attention either). She’s respected in such a way that she never became a punching bag, ala Jonathan Franzen or (her former student) David Foster Wallace, so I didn’t get to know about her that way. I knew her name for a while, and would see her stuff in bookstores. I knew people in writing circles who talked her up, big time. Eventually I edited a review of her latest book for San Antonio Review, and figured maybe I should have a look. Here we are.
“Housekeeping” is the story of a kid named Ruth, living some time in the mid-twentieth century in a town called Fingerbone somewhere in the mountain west. One day, her mother drops her and her older sister Lucille off at Grandma’s house and drives her car off of a cliff into the deep mountain lake nearby. Previously, this lake had claimed a whole train full of people, including grandpa, slipping off the railroad bridge into the deep. It’s a scary lake. Grandma is old, tired, strong, respectable, and befuddled by life, what with its lake-taken loved ones and sudden responsibilities for children. She dies and some eccentric great aunts take over the house. Also thrown by their new responsibilities, the great aunts fly the coop when the girls’ aunt Sylvia returns to Fingerbone to take over the titular task of keeping house with the kids. Sylvia is an eccentric who lived for years as a drifter. She does whacky stuff like eat dinner in the dark and collect random shit. Ruth is basically down but as Lucille grows older and gets into adolescence, she is not. By and by, the law takes an interest in the supposed neglect of Ruth, and Ruth and Sylvia flee into the night.
Robinson’s prose is, indeed, quite fine. I especially enjoyed a passage where Ruth talks about the sort of not-asleep not-awake state you can get into if you stare into deep dark long enough. Robinson is good with sensate stuff like that. There’s a little bit of “the ands” — unnecessary usage of the conjunction “and” in lists instead of commas to, I don’t know, give emphasis or something, you see it all the time and it bugs me — but for all I know, she invented that tic and passed it down to her workshop epigones. She makes differences in terms of house cleaning and the like between the women who make up the story stand out and not in some obvious symbolic way. As for the simple humanity bit… well, I guess that’s where we get back to how I began. Her version of humanity is hard for me to recognize. Not that that makes it wrong, or false, or that I’m going to start bitching about how I “can’t relate to the characters,” that obnoxious cliche of readers who treat literature like a consumer experience. I felt I could relate to the characters.
Where I had trouble was connecting to the philosophical stuff Robinson put in Ruth’s mouth. I’ll give just one example- she has Ruth say “[F]or need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and it’s shadow.” And a bunch more in that vein- no more feel the need for someone to touch your hair as to feel it. In what world is that the case? Whose experience is that? Is that what it’s like to be one of the serene middle aged ladies at a UU church? I’m not trying to be rude or dismissive here. That’s just utterly foreign to me- not just to me, but to more or less everything I’ve read. It’s actually kind of wild. But it also makes me arch an eyebrow. What the hell is literature for in a world where desire and satisfaction are the same? What’s the point? A bit like asking what’s the point of being good if our fates are predestined, like Robinson’s homeboy (not being flip here, she has written extensively praising) John Calvin…
How much did any of the doings in the book interest me? How much do straying bourgeois wives interest me? Not much but I enjoyed “Madame Bovary.” “Housekeeping” held some interest for me but less- Flaubert is pointed, mean, and Robinson isn’t, not here anyway. So I amused myself in two ways. First, I played “find the contemporary workshop lit tropes.” Robinson reigned over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for some time, and stuff from here crops up in “that kind” of fiction over and over again, from the NYT bestsellers list to your writer friends google docs. Siblings with a spooky bond? Check. The woods as source of meaning, Walden redux? Check. The “ands?” Check.
Second, I cooked up a scenario where Robinson is a satrap. I’ve noticed that in the publishing world, sometimes an author is basically crowned king of their community, the spokesman (gendered term used advisedly) who’s on call to represent their ethnos and advance their protégés, stymie rivals, etc. Junot Diaz was that guy for Dominican and to an extent Latino writers; Sherman Alexie played that role for Native American literature for a while. I think of these as “satraps,” the term for governors of what used to be independent kingdoms absorbed by the Persian empire. Both Diaz and Alexie ran afoul of abuse scandals clearly abetted by being treated like little dependent kings and both probably held back the literature of their respective communities (Diaz was quite spiteful towards Carmen Maria Machado, a much more talented writer). I think the white publishing industry would have loved for Ta-Nehisi Coates to be their African-American satrap, but he doesn’t seem interested and that literary space is (and always has been) too big and diverse to manage that way. I found myself thinking, what if there’s hundreds of good white Protestant writers — they’d have to be evangelicals, there’s not enough juice in “mainline” Protestantism anymore — and we just put Robinson out there as their symbolic figurehead so we don’t have to confront their energy, like how Diaz’s literary machismo was probably threatened by Machado’s perspective? Is Marilynne Robinson fake news?? Well, no, that’s silly. She’s just a decent writer I don’t relate to much. Don’t worry- I’ll give “Gilead” a try, one of these days. ***’
Seyward Darby, “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism” (2021) – A fair few new books on contemporary American fascism and antifascism lately, which I’d be interested in reading even if I weren’t working on my own book about it. Seyward Darby works as a journalist, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and got extensive access to three of the most prominent women on the contemporary American fascist right. There’s Corinna Olsen, a former leader in the National Socialist Movement, the American Nazis who go the most out of their way to imitate genuine German Nazis of the 1923-1945 era. There’s Ayla Stewart, a leading white nationalist “tradlife” influencer online (the “what is tradition” question among your “tradlife” folks is so muddied I’ve given up worrying about it). And lastly, we have Lana Lokteff, a sort of younger, more-openly-Nazi Ann Coulter figure and cohost of the Red Ice podcast. All three, by interesting coincidence, were born in that year of years, 1979.
What can these three tell us about white nationalism and women’s place in it? That seems to be Darby’s thesis question. Good student she presumably once was, she dutifully returns us to the thesis question at points in most (all? I didn’t keep track) chapters, and answers “yes, Virginia, white women were always important to white nationalism.” That was a rude way of putting it, stemming with frustration with how little I’ve read lately, even good books, surprise me, in form or content. Darby’s thesis is both true and more involved in that. The role white women have historically played in white nationalism is that of normalizing the ideology. From the antebellum South to the Klan revival in the nineteen-twenties to the online influencers of today, white nationalist women do their best to associate their hateful, deadly ideas with home, hearth, children, nurture, and (a carefully modulated, don’t want any loose women here! Except when nazi men actually do) sex appeal. More than marketing (though it’s definitely also marketing), these concerns of white nationalist womanhood tap into the deep concerns of racism more generally, the notion of a zero-sum world of racial total war where the “home front” is of paramount importance.
The three subjects illustrate these dynamics and how they work today in different ways. Olsen is somewhat the outlier (Darby refers to these women by their first names throughout- I’m weird about that and so will stick with surnames. They are not my friends). If she participated in efforts to normalize all-out Hitler-imitative Nazism, it was only in comparison to what the men were up to. She was a lost Gen Xer (as were all three women, to a certain extent) in the Pacific Northwest when she got swept up in Nazism, specifically, to the promise of Kalispell, a whites-only intentional community out in the mountains. She liked the idea of getting into a primal, folksy domesticity (I found myself thinking of “Midsommar”) with her two daughters (the dad was out of the picture). Olsen also tolerates bullshit a lot less than the other two, and quit (giving information to the FBI in the process) after Nazi men routinely sexualized her daughters. She converted to Islam not long before Darby contacted her.
Lokteff and especially Stewart are closer to the thesis. Stewart identified as a feminist whose big thing was natural birth. Soft-leftism and relatively defensible but kook-adjacent positions, along with a desire for more attention and a lack of real values, led her down the primrose path to what was then called the “altright.” She joined an extra-conservative Mormon sect, started cranking out kids, and brought her white nationalist message to the “mommy blog” space. She took to the tropes and the conventions of the space — pastel aesthetic, aspirational lifestyle-ism, nostalgia, passive-aggressive sniping at other mothers, and most of all, the shocked, shocked! aggrieved tearful defensiveness that anyone would object to her ideas — like a fish to water.
Lokteff, for her part, also started out vaguely left-of-center. Granddaughter of an emigre from the Russian Revolution (let’s pause and pour one out for nana’s stolen serfs) and also raised among a lot of vaguely spiritual nonsense, she got into white nationalism via the sort of aimless skepticism that characterizes… some people, we’ll leave it at that. She had a kid around the time Darby started interviewing her (commenters on her shows let her know how she was failing the race). She couldn’t do the domestic goddess thing Stewart does, but she could do the “I’m a woman who likes ‘traditional’ masculinity” thing. Interesting, given the way she has, in many ways, sidelined the Swedish Nazi she married and whose show she basically took over, but that’s how it goes. How must Phyllis Schlafly’s husband have felt? Fine, probably, the prick.
At this point, faithful readers must be as used to me bringing up the shortcomings of liberal analyses of fascism (and antifascism) as I am of the theses in these thesis-heavy books I read. Well… tough. The shortcomings in “Sisters in Hate” aren’t damning and the book is still well worth reading. They can be summed up as the effects of a liberal understanding of politics as having more to do with personal affect than it does. Such an outlook probably makes for better profile-writing than a more rigorous outlook might. I look at these three women and see marks. I want to know how they can affect a strategic situation and how best to neutralize them. But they are, indeed, humans (Nazis are human- just bad humans). Darby brings that out in discussing their assorted personalities: Olsen’s sharpness and oddness, Stewart’s desire to belong and capacity to swallow her own snake oil, Lokteff’s cynicism.
I’m not even saying Darby shouldn’t do that. I just think a more structural approach might have done more to link up these affects to the political situation, if we’re going to give them political weight- the affects and the effects, if you will. For example, it would have been cool to spool out more the historical context, given they were literally all born in the same year. This critique extends to the solutions- can’t have a liberal political book without some solutions! These mostly involve white women doing the work of challenging racism themselves, of helping women who seem to be falling off into white nationalism, donating to ex-Nazi recovery groups (Darby cites a mediocre one, not an actively hurtful one). These suggestions are varying degrees of helpful, but don’t really get to the root of the problem. Moreover, it cuts across the grain of her thesis. She uses the metaphors of “falling” into nazism and needing a “handhold.” Did they fall, or did they walk, intentionally, into what they did (and do)? Well, as always, probably a bit of both, and prevention is worthwhile, but it deserves more of a discussion. In any event, this is a pretty good book on an underexplored topic. It’s just the critiques are a little more interesting to write (and, I’d guess, read) than “good profiles!” ****
Stanislav Vysotsky, “American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism” (2021) – I figured I’d have a look at this new social scientific work on antifa in the US. I’m not sure what I expected but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s nice to see someone in the academic guild get something basically right about this fraught topic. The writing, predictably, plods, as social science does these days, with a lot of name checking and theoretical hedging. Vysotsky carefully classifies American antifa in relation to the literature on social movements, subcultures, etc. It’s also worth noting that Vysotsky did his primary research with antifa groups (“Old City” and “New City” Antifa) between 2007 and 2010, which is to say, years before antifa sprung into the news around the 2016 election. He has plenty to say about post-2016 antifa debates, but a lot of what he observed happened in the time when a few groups, mostly anarchists ensconced in punk scenes, were keeping the antifa thing alive.
The basic thing about antifa, Vysotsky argues, is that it is opposed to fascism. This sounds like a “duh” but given where the rhetoric around antifa has gone — and not just on the right, where it’s basically official that antifa is an underground army for communism/the Democratic Party — it is helpful to ground it some. Vysotsky describes antifa as a classic “countermovement.” The shape any given antifa group takes largely depends on its fascist opposition. Given that the research mostly took place before 2010, a lot of what this book looks at is groups dedicated to dealing with street fascists, generally open about who they are, often in and around punk scenes. This is pretty different from much of what I’ve worked on, where we deal with a range of fascists between Trump supporters and open Nazis, and are largely trying to keep their political movement from taking root in the area. But the general idea is accurate. Any antifa group that goes in already decided about what they want to look like and do, without a clear strategic purpose, won’t last long or do much good.
In any event, as Vysotsky makes clear, action other than violence — education, intelligence work, securing events, etc. — takes up more of any antifa group’s time than street fights, even for the most roughneck groups. This has certainly been true of local practice- I’m writing a book about this stuff and am worried I’ll bore audiences, there’s so little fighting. This is a nice marriage of practicality and ideology. Practically speaking, it makes sense to set some basic parameters, and within those parameters adapt your practices to the situation, when facing an enemy like fascism. Ideologically, anarchists kept the embers of the antifa flame going for a long time before it blossomed again post-Trump, and their emphasis on direct action, decentralization, and voluntarism has placed an indelible stamp on antifascism. Communist groups often participate to the extent they can hang with those values. As for us democratic socialists, well, let’s just say the decentralized decision-making structures in certain chapters of the largest democratic socialist organization stateside give us some leeway a “smaller tent” might now allow… There are times where the voluntaristic aspects of antifascist work can be frustrating, especially to the “frustrated officer” in every nerd boy. But it has answered, so far.
If anything, Vysotsky probably could have afforded to criticize antifa a little more in this book. They/we get stuff wrong. There’s infighting, posturing, ideological foolishness there the same as there is anywhere else on the left, or really in any kind of politics. Going into dangerous situations demands more organization and accountability than some organizations involved want to or can provide. But I think insofar as “American Antifa” exists as a corrective to conservative (both pop-journalistic and criminological) accounts, it is a valuable book. ****’
James S.A. Corey, “Caliban’s War” (2012) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – The second installment in the “Expanse” books marks a substantial improvement from the first, which wasn’t bad itself. The improvements in this yarn of adventure in a human-settled frontier solar system will make me explain parts of the world! Which I didn’t feel that much compelled to do in reviewing “Leviathan Wakes.” I guess the important thing to mention here is that the big plot point in “Leviathan Wakes” was that an evil megacorp recovered an alien weapon called the “protomolecule.” The protomolecule is like a germ that kills anything it touches and then reanimates it, but all mutated and fucked up. At first I kind of rolled my eyes at what seemed an obvious zombie play- 2011 being around high zombie season. But to the authors’ credit, the protomolecule is weirder than that- it disassembles life and reassembles it into strange shapes, towards some unknown purpose it is pursuing methodically.
We shouldn’t make more of this than it is- in the first book, it was mostly an occasion for zombies and some body horror. In the second, someone has weaponized the protomolecule to make monstrous super-soldiers. They’re pretty “Alien”-y — silent, black, big heads, big claws — but why mess with a proven concept? At the beginning of the book, one of these monsters takes out a bunch of up-armored space marines on Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. This causes Earth and Mars, the two big solar system superpowers with interests on Ganymede, to get in a shooting war, because each thinks the other fragged its guys.
This leads to a chain of reaction we follow through our viewpoint characters, most of them new to the series. Martian space marine Bobbie survives the Ganymede monster attack, but through various circumstances winds up in fish out of water situations working for Earth-bound UN (the UN runs Earth, a bit of a laugh but whatever) apparatchik Avasarala, another viewpoint character. Ganymedan botanist Prax finds his daughter kidnapped just as stuff collapses on his moon- coincidence?! No, obviously. And of course, there’s Holden, captain and dad-figure to a crew of misfits on the space corvette Rocinante. They all find themselves in assorted races against time — stop the Mars-Earth war, stop the polymolecule which even those who want to weaponize can’t control, find Prax’s daughter. Naturally, these all come together, as do the characters.
The new characters are a mix. A lot of Bobbie’s character is “she’s a woman, and a badass, and physically huge!” which is cool but not a big deal. Prax is analytical, unused to adventure, dedicated to finding his kid, the kind of NPC you need to keep safe on escort missions in a lot of video games. I liked Avasarala, it was cool to have an old lady bureaucrat as a main character in this kind of story, doing political machinations and shit. She wore a little thin as the book went on — we know, she swears a lot and likes her husband — and she’s basically beat for beat Olenna Tyrell from “Game of Thrones” (one of the writers was George R.R. Martin’s assistant!), but is still pretty good. There’s more of a wrinkle to Holden — being involved in violence messes with him — than in the first book but he’s still what I think of as a “perspective dullard.” Ever notice how often main characters are way dull? Harry Potter is the king of perspective dullards, but they’re everywhere, and Holden is one.
That’s fine, though, I’m not here for a character study. I’m here for action, and the authors — “James Corey” is a pen name, it’s two dudes — deliver pretty well. The action isn’t all violence, either. Prax is at his best showing us Ganymede experiencing an ecological collapse after Mars and Earth start shooting each other in its atmosphere- turns out, space colonies are fragile! Avasarala does some fun political maneuvering with people (men, mostly) who underestimate her, but not so much as to make her actions low stake. Bobbie is slower to come to her own but does in the end, with some pretty cool space/Jovian moon battles. And Holden ties it all together, a little tiresome at times, but shepherding the action out to the moons of Jupiter for a big showdown. Then there’s a pretty good sting at the end to set up the inevitable sequel. All in all, a good ride.
There’s a bit of the “Chamber of Secrets” problem here. The first two Harry Potter books ended with confrontations with various manifestations of Voldemort in the school basements. So far, every Expanse book ends with a raid on a remote protomolecule-infested lair. I remember wondering if Harry Potter books would always end that way, then I read “Prisoner of Azkaban,” the best Harry Potter book, which broke the mold. “Abaddon‘s Gate,” the next Expanse book, should maybe mix it up, but the action in “Caliban’s War” beats anything Rowling came up with. ****’
Émile Zola, “L’Assommoir” (1877) (translated from the French by Margaret Mauldon) – My understanding is that “L’Assommoir” was Zola’s breakthrough, as far as selling the series of which it is the seventh volume, the Rougon-Macquart novels, to the public. He was popular, but this one was a real hit. Whether this is down to the French public finally getting behind Zola’s experiment in extended-form literary naturalism, prising what he saw as the hereditary and environmental factors determining human existence out of the web of mystification around it, or just that people like depictions of low life and few had been served up to them like this before, is for wiser commentators than me to say.
“L’Assommoir” tells the story of one Gervaise (yes, it took a while for me to stop seeing her as Ricky Gervaise in a dress), a low-ranking member of one of the titular families (the Macquarts, for anyone keeping score) of the series. She starts out poor, working as a laundress in a north Paris slum, with two little kids from a dude, Lantier, to whom she wasn’t married and who ditches her early on. Life in the slum is crowded, dirty, and violent, not just physically but emotionally. Everyone is in everyone’s business. It’s the worst of both worlds in terms of people engaging in disapproved behavior — drinking, illicit sex, petty crime — but everyone still being highly moralistic about it all. Like I’ve said before, poverty and trauma don’t, on their own, ennoble- they fuck you up. People in “L’Assommoir” are pretty badly fucked up.
Towards the middle of the book, things look up for Gervaise. She gets married to a roofer, Coupeau, and makes/borrows enough money to open a laundry shop of her own. Zola understood himself as a naturalist, not a sentimentalist ala Dickens. There is, supposedly, a logic to what happens. It’s too much to say it’s the opposite of Dickens, that morality doesn’t enter into it, it definitely does, but in some weird late-nineteenth-century way I don’t fully grasp. So when the downfall starts, there seems to be multiple reasons. One is that Coupeau falls off a roof, hurts himself, and finds out he prefers chilling (and, eventually, drinking a lot even by prevailing standards) to working. If that were all, it would imply that Zola was making a commentary on bad luck. But there’s more to it. Gervaise can’t stop herself from “greed,” which in Zola’s usage means it’s old sense- she wants to eat a lot, and good food too. She also wants to laze and gossip with her workers rather than really attend to the neighborhood’s dirty laundry, and she likes throwing parties, even with her in-laws who hate her.
So as you can see, there’s a weird mix of dynamics going on in this Petrie dish Zola set up. Things get weirder when Lantier re-enters the picture, with mysterious money, political opinions (opposed to the Emperor, but not in an especially helpful way), and good lines of shit. Zola depicts Lantier as a sort of boarder-parasite (not a few social scientists from this period described the horrors that come in the wake of having to take on boarders, especially men) who men and women both find irresistible. He takes back up with Gervaise and also starts borrowing money from her. Coupeau doesn’t care, but he doesn’t care about much by that point besides going down to L’Assommoir, the lowest dive in the neighborhood, and swilling rotgut. Eventually, between Coupeau’s drinking, Gervaise’s laziness and gluttony, Lantier’s depredations, and factors like the utter lack of care options for elders or children, Gervaise is pretty badly fucked. Zola strings this out for hundreds of pages, not sparing details: humiliations at hands of vicious in-laws and former enemies, madness, free-falling standards of appearance and hygiene, eventual demise.
What to make of all this? Well, it held my interest pretty well, more than in-jokes about Second Empire politics or weird Genesis-allegories like you got in earlier installments of the series. Zola claimed this was “the first novel about working people that does not lie” and it scandalized many readers for its (relatively) frank references to sex and low life. The French is, supposedly, in the slum argot of the time, not just the characters’ dialogue and thoughts but much of the omniscient narration as well. The introduction warns this makes “L’Assommoir” notoriously difficult to translate. The translator of this edition made the interesting choice to basically turn it into cockney, which took me out of it some. I’m not sure what a better choice would be, but constantly hearing things described as “not half” this or that, “bleedin’” as a modifier, etc., felt wrong.
I’m also not sure what Zola meant me to carry away from the book. I should reign in my habit of compulsively politically classifying literary writers, but I guess I’d slot in Zola as a left-Republican (in the French sense, though American Republicans were a bit closer to that sense circa 1877). He’s sympathetic to the poor but also thinks they by and large do it to themselves. Character, as transmitted by heredity and shaped by environment, will out. Gervaise and Coupeau’s kid, Nana, subject of a later novel, is the result of slum breeding and slum environment, neither of which can result in anything good as far as Zola is concerned. Workers’s self-assertion in the world of “L’Assommoir” is usually either empty boastfulness, as in the case of the slacker Coupeau, or a grifter’s cover, like with Lantier. Meritocracy and striving don’t do much either. Would Gervaise had made it with a better husband? Zola definitely gets across that women are screwed way worse than men in the slums, structurally screwed. Well- it seems a thing with French social novelists they don’t do much with solutions. A lot of French social theorists used to, at the time, and their solutions were novelistic enough (see Comte, Fourier). This was a pretty good book in any event. If you’re not a weird Rougon-Macquart completist like me, there’s worse places to jump in, despite the translation issues. ****
I had a look at a book by a pair of liberal hawks prognosticating war with China. Come for me getting pissed at how dull and poorly written it is, stay for me getting pissed at how, despite the writers’ liberal bona fides, they still contribute to the anti-Asian climate in this country! Thanks to San Antonio Review for running it, read it here.
Michael Trask, “Cruising Modernism: Class and Sexuality in American Literature and Social Thought” (2003) – I enjoyed Michael Trask’s latest two books, “Camp Sites” and “Ideal Minds,” so thoroughly I decided to have a look at his first book, “Cruising Modernism,” which examines notions of sexuality and class within American modernist literature and social sciences between the nineteen-aughts and the twenties.
It, too, is quite good, and I say this as someone with next to no connection to the literary writers Trask takes on: Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and Willa Cather. I’ve either tried them and not liked them (James) or just haven’t tried them and should. I’m something of a cartoon-addled little kid when it comes to literary modernism, preferring the flashy (and wicked) Celines and Wyndham Lewises to the rest, but who knows, maybe I’ll like the others? Either way, Trask makes some compelling points. It’s not enough to talk about these writers as being on one “side” or another of a contemporary culture war read back into the past (this was written in the gay-marriage-fight era). Trask would probably take me to task for my lumbering historiographical take — he’s got the finesse (and digs) of a literary critic who knows his business — but I see all of the writers he talks about as responding to dynamics that upset established class and sexual hierarchies.
The sheer speed and dislocation of movements of people, capital, goods, ideas, etc. that defined the early twentieth century posed problems for both literature and social science. Both fields were used to thinking in terms of “statics”- fixed rules of society, fixed ideas of what literature was, fixed morality (that a lot of these fixes were quite new didn’t seem to bother them, or did it? They don’t seem now). Then all of a sudden (i.e. the Second Industrial Revolution hit) everything was “dynamics” and people didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. Social scientists located mobility as a major source of numerous “ills,” from labor agitation to homosexuality. They weren’t shy about sort of stirring these ills into one big degeneracy stew, and locating these in specific people, namely hobos/tramps and immigrants, especially the newer waves coming from the Mediterranean. Good (poor) people stay put, quietly work for (whatever offered) wage, and marry someone of the opposite gender. Bad poors wander around, looking for kicks.
Writers had different reactions to these bad poors and their cousins, the neurasthenic and newly-extra-mobile (witness Henry James and his characters flitting across the Atlantic) rich. I’ll be honest here and say I didn’t fully keep score and the close readings of writers I haven’t read and probably wouldn’t like that much threw me a little, but the chapters still held my interest. As far as I can tell, Henry James thought the new mobility made people sad and weird and got them in bad marriages. Gertrude Stein (and many social scientists) preferred nice, reliable, obedient dogs to flighty, self-motivated people (she would have loved doggo memes, I bet, the more misanthropic the better). Workers made Hart Crane horny, and Cather had something going on with the erotics of Catholicism? Either way, interesting stuff to think about. I will grant the work is a bit “dissertation-y” in places, but Trask already showed the ability to play with schema while getting his points across brilliantly that would characterize his later work. I’ve invited him to chat with me on zoom for a YouTube video- hopefully he replies! ****’
Tom O’Neill, “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties” (2019) (narrated by Kevin Stillwell) – I picked this book up because I had heard it proffers a new idea of the Manson murders. As it happens, (former) entertainment reporter Tom O’Neill is quite careful not to advance a thesis on what happened those days in the summer of 1969 or why. Instead, he blows holes in the established story, presents circumstantial evidence pointing to other potential stories, and most of all tells the story of his investigation. What started as a five-thousand word assignment for a now vanished entertainment magazine in the late nineties became a twenty year obsession for O’Neill, and eventually, this book.
I don’t know when exactly I learned of the Manson murders, sometime as a child. Like I’ve said in this space before, one thing my sisters and I agreed upon as kids was that cults were fascinating, and we all heard sixties stories from our parents (neither of whom were hippies or anywhere near California at the time). Truth be told they interest me more as a cultural phenomenon than as a set of murders as such. Maybe Manson is more interesting to me than most serial killers because he’s not really a serial killer- arguably, he was the commanding officer of a very peculiar death squad. War always interested me more than murder and the Family had in mind something like war, according to the official narrative.
For those who have not made the choice to know about Manson, that official narrative, set in place by Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, in his case against The Family and in his crime classic “Helter Skelter,” goes like this: foiled in his attempts to become a rock star, Charles Manson became obsessed with the idea that The Beatles were communicating with him via “The White Album.” Convinced the song “Helter Skelter” (one of my favorite Beatles tunes) predicted a race war that Manson and his group of acid-casualty followers, “The Family,” would profit from somehow, Manson had his followers commit two house invasion murder sprees with knives. They were instructed to make the crimes messy, and to daub messages on the walls of the houses in blood to implicate the Black Panthers, thereby initiating a race war. The Family would then stand back, let society collapse, and allow Charles Manson to emerge from the wreckage as king. This convinced a jury to convict Manson for murder, despite his not having killed anyone at either house, and generations of true crime fans.
Manson and his followers always insisted the “Helter Skelter” motivation was bullshit, but then, they seldom said much coherent except that they disapproved of society as such. According to his account, O’Neill didn’t think much of it either way. He makes clear from the beginning, in the somewhat panicked tone of a man trying to convince someone of something they’re worried won’t be believed, that he does not believe that Manson and the Family are innocent. They murdered those people in those houses and others. But O’Neill comes to dismiss the “Helter Skelter” theory, and that’s probably his biggest achievement in this book.
There’s too many twists and turns and nooks and crannies both in the angles on the case O’Neill found and in O’Neill’s story to relate them all here. There are also some blind alleys in the book. O’Neill reports how his early investigations led him to the criminal milieu that hung around Cielo Drive, the posh house where the first and most celebrated Family mass-slaying occurred. Rather than innocent actress Sharon Tate lounging around in her underwear massively pregnant, waiting for husband Roman Polanski to come home but getting The Family instead, we get a whole lot of drug dealers and violence around the house, some of it Polanski’s directed at Tate. They don’t really enter into O’Neill’s larger thesis, though, except in two related ways: they first bring in the hints of military, intelligence, and organized crime involvement in the story, and they basically begin O’Neill’s descent into something like madness.
The two biggest holes in the establishment “Helter Skelter” story seem to be these: that key witness Terry Melcher, a record producer who angered Manson by refusing to sign him, severely understated his relationship to Manson, before and after the murders that happened at Melcher’s former address; and the way the cops could have locked up Manson, a parolee from the federal prison system, any time. They, especially the LA County Sheriff’s Office, knew he was dealing drugs, stealing cars, having sex with underage girls, etc. Why didn’t they bust him back? Or at least suspect him sooner for the crimes? The Family was free for weeks while the LAPD and LASO bungled, and it was only Family member Sadie Atkins bragging about murdering Tate while in jail for some other crime that sent the cops out to pick up The Family in their post-race-war-hideout in the Arizona desert.
The LA cops treating Manson with kid gloves is only the most spectacular and surface-level peculiarity of Manson’s dealings with authorities after he was paroled in the early sixties. There was also the fact that his parole officer, Roger Smith, had precisely one parolee, Manson, while the rest of the federal POs in California had dozens. Manson spent a year or so in San Francisco, just after the famed “Summer of Love,” and this is where he started The Family, but Bugliosi barely refers to it in “Helter Skelter.” O’Neill looked into it and found that Manson and his early girls (like “Sexy Sadie” Atkins, who had connections with the Church of Satan) spent a lot of time at the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. HAFMC, in turn, was host to people who basically saw hippie-fied San Francisco as a great big social science laboratory. This included Louis “Jolly” West, known for his experimenting on unwitting people with amphetamines, LSD, and more (not just people, either- he fed a fully-grown elephant LSD until it died, for science, supposedly). As meth hit the Haight and the Summer of Love turned into a spiral of violence and madness (even Manson felt compelled to leave, though presumably there was also a pull factor to LA, Manson’s dreams of stardom), guys like West just sat back and watched, or tried stuff out, with the HAFMC as something of a base.
Jolly West was a certified sociopathic creep and almost certainly connected to the CIA’s MKUltra experimentation program. Motivated by (racialized, mostly bullshit) accounts of Chinese “brainwashing” of UN prisoners during the Korean War, the CIA decided it would be cool to figure out how to do brainwashing of their own, including for the purpose of creating untraceable assassins. Why this supposed “intelligence agency” couldn’t just hire local thugs to do stuff like that is a mystery to me and probably catnip to conspiracists- you’re not gonna get a local thug to kill a US President, for instance. In any event, for at least a decade, the CIA got scientists to seriously fuck with people with drugs, including the recently-discovered LSD, to learn how to “reprogram” people. This isn’t conspiracy theory- this is public record, stuff the CIA admitted to during that brief window in the seventies when Congress tried to reign them in.
Also in the public record we find the FBI’s COINTELPRO program and the CIA’s Chaos project, both of which were aimed at disrupting political dissidents, overwhelmingly on the left. COINTELPRO set up Fred Hampton for assassination, tried to get MLK Jr. to commit suicide (and might have greenlit his assassination), used violence to sew discord in militant groups, and that’s just what we know about (thanks largely to an analog wikileaking by a group of brave militants who burgled an FBI field office). Chaos was in much the same vein but even more illegal- the CIA is not supposed to do clandestine operations in the US. A fair amount of the book “Chaos” is dedicated to O’Neill relating the facts about MKUltra, COINTELPRO, and Chaos to his presumed true-crime readership, all with the caveats that O’Neill was learning this as an entertainment writer now way, way past deadline for his thirty-year anniversary of the Manson murders piece.
Ultimately, we’re left with more tantalizing questions than answers. Could Manson have been a product of MKUltra-style experiments run out of the Haight? We know MKUltra experimented on federal prisoners around that time and earlier. Whitey Bulger spent his time on Alcatraz being dosed with LSD and reading Machiavelli. Could Manson have learned a crude version of CIA brainwashing techniques and used them on The Family to turn more-or-less normal kids into killers? Could the LA authorities have been warned away from Manson because someone in a high place wanted to see what Manson and The Family would do? Could the Tate/LaBianca killings have nothing to do with “Helter Skelter,” but have been a hit, aimed at countercultural Hollywood and its support for left/liberal causes? Surely, the Manson murders “ended ‘The Sixties,’” as writers from Joan Didion on down have insisted so often it’s become a cliche.
O’Neill, ever-worried about becoming a conspiracy theorist, does not answer in the affirmative for any of these. His book ends with dangling questions, a few additional questions thrown in (did Manson or The Family kill a young drifter in the Arizona desert before getting arrested? Are the cops covering it up?), and a call for the truth. Talking to Manson briefly on the phone from jail didn’t help. And neither did Vincent Bugliosi, who proves to be a first-class weirdo and martinet, not the calm, thoughtful guide through the muck, blood, and chaos he presents himself as in “Helter Skelter.” Bugliosi, in O’Neill’s account, repeatedly threatened and harangued them in tones both ridiculous and ominous, especially as O’Neill dug up fairly compelling evidence that Bugliosi suborned perjury during the Manson trial. It’s also on public record that Bugliosi is a woman beater, attacking his mistress after she refused to get an abortion, something that probably helped scotch his political career but didn’t stop the crime networks from putting Bugliosi on tv until he died a few years before “Chaos” came out.
What do I think? Well, there’s definitely something fishy about the way the authorities treated Manson pre-murders. Ethically speaking, there is literally nothing I would put past the CIA, then or now. Admittedly, hitting at the counterculture when you’re aiming at “the left” doesn’t make much sense to me — if anything, hippie shit was an impediment to doing real organizing — but it’d probably make perfect sense to the idiots at Langley or to J. Edgar Hoover. The closest thing I could see them quailing from would be murdering Sharon Tate, the pregnant daughter of an Army Intelligence colonel, not quite a “made guy” in their mafia but close. There’s no way to prove any of this and probably won’t be- the thing that made much of this possible was O’Neill finding Jolly West’s papers at UCLA, untouched. That’s the kind of thing you’d figure a big conspiracy wouldn’t let happen, but in this Coen Brothers movie we live in, who knows… for my money, I can buy Manson was fucked with by MKUltra types, and in his imitative way, could’ve tried it on with the girls. I really can’t get around LASO not bouncing him back to the fed pen numerous times, which does indicate protection… but protection from some Jolly West figure who just wanted to see what they’d do — for science, of course — seems more likely to me than a master plan to kill various Hollywood types and through them, the general Sixties vibe. Fuck knows, though.
Why this angle on Manson, why now? That’s an interesting question to me as someone more interested in the phenomena around the murder than the murder itself. Well, O’Neill worked on it since we thought Al Gore might be President, so presumably, he didn’t have a current-zeitgeisty reason behind it. I do think it has been assimilated to a wave of pop-left conspiracy theory backed by podcasts like “TrueAnon,” seizing on the traditional right-wing terrain of conspiracies. The stern intellectual leftist in me disapproves. The somewhat less stern historian knows that the left was never immune: for every antisemitic theory running around nineteenth century France, for instance, there seems to have been an equal-but-opposite Jacobin-left theory that everything that went wrong was down to the Jesuits. This could all be a sign that the left is reaching more people, including people given to this kind of thinking? The very real existence of certain conspiracies doesn’t help. I don’t know. “Stick to the documented,” I punt.
Experientially, listening to this book is pretty fun. You have to figure O’Neill “leaned in” a little to the naif-investigator angle in terms of his personal story, but it works. There’s a lot of baroque detail about Tate and Polanski’s Hollywood scene, which is fun if you like that kind of thing, and about the dirty details of MKUltra/COINTELPRO/Chaos style shenanigans. The freaks — the Hollywood “live freaky, die freaky” types and the even freakier freaks in white coats and ties like Jolly West — truly come out and alive throughout the text. I don’t usually say much about the narrators of audiobooks but actor Kevin Stillwell does a wonderful job conveying O’Neill’s curiosity, skepticism, and dawning realizations. All in all, I can by saying of “Chaos” that “it’s a real trip, man,” both in the sense of being interesting and informative and in the sense that a somewhat cliche sixties saying from a known square is an appropriate end point to a discussion of this fascinating and at times frustrating book. ****’