Review- Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire”


John Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844” (1994) – Colonial and early-republic New England and New York become a whole lot weirder — or weirder in a different way — in this book from that most fascinating and fraught subfield, the history of popular (read- not produced by and for academics or other specialists) ideas. Historian John Brooke argues that far from the staid Puritan monoculture we’re used to, the early northeast was rife with assorted oddball sects and people pursuing a Protestant variation on hermetic or occult practices. Massholes who read this book won’t be able to think about Hopkinton, MA or a few other places now known as mere sleepy bedroom communities again, after reading about how they were hotbeds of “perfectionists” or alchemy, in resistance to the mainline Puritan power center in Boston. Hopkinton!

Furthermore, Brooke argues, it was this gestalt of hermetic and perfectionist Protestantism that formed the foundation stone for the theology of Mormonism. Joseph Smith and those around him were steeped in the sort of folk-hermeticism Brooke describes as endemic to the back-country northeast at the time. Brooke depicts these as adapted reiterations of Renaissance-era hermetic concepts and practices: the perfectability of man through gnosis and ritual practice; the belief in secret knowledge of the nature of the cosmos passed down by groups of initiates; assorted proto-scientific practices in medicine, metallurgy, etc.

All of these beliefs, especially when adapted to early American circumstances, hold out the great promise of power in this world, more than contentment in the afterlife. The great innovation of the religions originated in America, be it Mormonism, Scientology, various positive-thinking cults, or at least some of the off-shoots of the Nation of Islam, is offering to unlock what amounts to super-powers for use in this life. Joseph Smith both claimed them for himself — he had a “seeing stone” with which to find buried treasure, and of course, he was the only one who could read the golden tablets — and offered them to his followers. Immersed, as Brooke argues, in a culture of this sort of folk-magic and often driven to equal parts despair by debt and failure and wild hope by the promise of (white, settler) America, the people of the frontier parts of the Northeast were “a prepared people,” ready to hear and follow his message. Among other things, this is a great study in the construction of belief systems almost completely outside of the scope of certified idea-mongers in academia, philosophy, or elsewhere.

More than a scam — or along with being a scam, or anyway creating a scamogenic environment — there was a philosophical through-line here. Much of it involves the rejection of both original sin and of the separation of spirit and matter. Challenging these concepts entailed an attack on much of the religious order that undergird society in Europe and America at the time. It implied antinomianism and the rejection of religious hierarchies (though, often enough, the establishment of new ones), along with whatever kind of occult superpowers people could acquire if they could gain the gnosis of the Primal Adam or whatever.

The rejection of the separation of spirit and matter lays at the heart of some of Mormonism’s more eccentric beliefs, like the idea of multiple ascending material heavens, through which good Mormons ascend like so many wagon trains westward, peopling them with demi-gods (one of the reasons, along with sheer horniness on Smith’s part, why they got into multiple marriages- all the more demi-god/angel babies for space-heaven). It’s not hard to see why all of this would appeal to people ripped from a cold, often authoritarian culture of establishment Protestantism, in New England or Britain or Germany, and starting anew out in the back of beyond, defined by equal parts opportunity and danger.

These sorts of history are fascinating but also frustrating. Establishing the chain of influence is hard enough with professional pedants who leave voluminous paper trails. It’s much harder with extramural people who left fragmentary record, often using obscure or shifting terms (not that that’s so rare in academics!). Brooke makes some leaps and I think overreaches in terms of how much he links Renaissance hermiticism with the folk beliefs of early New England and, in turn, Mormon theology. My sense of it is that the links in the chain are much looser than that. Perhaps it’s more there was a grab-bag (to use the annoying academic term, “reticule,” which means the exact same thing as grab-bag) than a chain of influence. The bag only had so many things in it for an enterprising young sect-leader and/or scam artist to pick, and a lot of the contents of the bag were handed down, originally, from the hermetics (via many hands who also added stuff, took stuff out, did their own weird modifications, etc). I really can’t say how accurate this is. But it mostly colors inside the lines of historical practice (it won the Bancroft, fwiw). And moreover, it’s just cool, and that has to count for something. ****’

Review- Brooke, “The Refiner’s Fire”

Review- Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”


Robert Heinlein, “Starship Troopers” (1959) – At bottom, science fiction is about exploring possibilities. The corpus of scifi has explored an exhaustive range of facets of existence, playing with everything from consumer technology to the structures of race and gender to the nature of time and space, in the full range of emotional registers. And it’s a project shared across the spectrum of writers, from exalted masters ala Le Guin, Delaney, and Dick to the lowliest fanfic scribbler. It’s genuinely one of the nice things about the twentieth century, warts and all, and one of the few we actually got to keep, in a real, vital way, in to the twenty-first.

So what possibilities does acclaimed science fiction icon Robert Heinlein imagine for us in “Starship Troopers,” then? Where does he go from that established jumping-off point for limitless possibility, humanity’s exploration of the stars? Well, mostly, he imagines boot camp. Endless endless boot camp, described by Heinlein’s impersonation of a happy-go-lucky grunt (Heinlein was an Annapolis grad and a navy officer who never saw combat), an update of Rudyard Kipling’s cockney Tommy ventriloquism. There’s a huge war in space going on — multiple wars, it seems — but none of that matters except as a rationale for boot camp and for a society seemingly organized around boot camp. There’s maybe fifteen pages of battle in the whole book, including maybe ten pages in the beginning. The rest is boot camp, and a lot of that is actually lectures about life and society. This is closer to a pedagogical novel than a war story.

The content of these lectures Heinlein puts in the voice of older authority figures bestowing wisdom unto the perspective-dullard — the primacy of force and the existential validity of its wielders — is less off-putting than the tone and context in which it’s delivered. Heinlein may have seen himself as critiquing late-1950s consumer society but his philosophers of the spartan life speak like they came off the tv of his period; bluff, bouncy schmaltz, scout-master-meets-snake-oil salesman. The society in which Heinlein’s rules have been applied — only veterans can vote, corporal punishment is liberally applied, and most of all, old fucks who think like him are paid and encouraged to babble at length and totally own anyone who challenges them — isn’t really all that different from the society in which Heinlein lived, except people are as a whole happier. Sometimes evil aliens will paste a city but we all know the powersuit boys will paste them right back (not that Heinlein is going to let us enjoy much of it).

What that contrast tells me is that Heinlein means it. He’s not doing a thought experiment, he’s not doing satire, we don’t need to apply “Niven’s Rule” (Niven was another middlebrow fascist slug, anyway) of separating the views of the author from the views of the narrator. If this shit was imaginary for him, he’d try extending his imagination. If anything, the idea of “service-guarantees-citizenship” is much less grotesque than the combination of unimaginativeness, dullness (seriously- just give us some fucking space battles, dude), and chipper banality with which his ideas are expressed.

The militarism is just a vehicle for what Heinlein really cares about in this book- the defense and extension of a world that suits him (1950s America but a little hornier and in space), and the humiliation and extinction of people with ideas that make him uncomfortable. To be honest, I think the dynamic we see here — people smart enough to think about the world around them but deeply scared of the implications of what they think seeking intellectualized schmaltz to form a security blanket — drives an increasing amount of right-wing thought today. It’s a sad irony a lot of those people invest in science fiction, which is supposed to be about impetuous imagination.

I wanted to like this book, or at least like it a little more than I did. I like a lot of work I disagree with much more than the actual content of this book (the boy scout tone really is skin-crawlingly off for me, I’ll admit). Heinlein also helped keep Philip K. Dick solvent, even after PKD made fun of him all the time, so I want to like the guy. He seems like a good sport. And there are a lot of great right-leaning speculative fiction writers: Lovecraft, Tolkien, Herbert, Vance, Wolfe, Simmons, Stephenson. They create imaginative worlds, mount incisive criticisms, weave intricate plots, are compelling writers. None of this applies to “Starship Troopers” (and only applied a little bit more to “Stranger In A Strange Land,” the only other Heinlein I’ve read, which is best described as “‘Starship Troopers’ for horniness instead of the military”).

Paul Verhoeven showed a much greater degree of fealty to what science fiction is supposed to be about when he took this dull book for raw material for an actually great scifi movie, which is a brilliant satire of the fascist undercurrents both in the book (and scifi in general) and in our society. The movie has humor, it has the courage and brio of Verhoeven’s insane choice to make a movie undermining it’s own source material in what’s supposed to be a dumb action movie, and it has actual… space… battles which, I’d like to stress, the novel basically lacked. Having read the source material, I can now definitively say “Starship Troopers” beats out “The Godfather” or “Children of Men” for the ultimate case of a movie being better than the book.

Gotta say… nothing disappoints more than getting boring fascism when you expect the more interesting literary kind. *’

Review- Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”

Review- Ha Jin, “War Trash”

war trash

Ha Jin, “War Trash” (2004) – This is a pretty good novel set during the Korean War. The protagonist is a Chinese “volunteer” officer who is captured by the Americans. I’ve read a few memoirs and novels about war by people who were there, and I suspect Ha Jin has too. He gets across a lot of the main themes you get from works from people who actually go through war and/or internment: confusion; weariness, and especially hunger, and the concomitant joy of food; small funny moments in what is largely a very bleak world; complex social dynamics driven by despair, officiousness, and petty sadism. You don’t get the fake redemptive narratives or triumphalism or other sentimentalisms you get in war writing from those who write about it from a distance (see: Hollywood).

The human element in “War Trash” mainly plays out in the dilemma faced by Yu Yuan, the main character- align himself with the Communists, who run his homeland, or the Nationalists, who run the camps with the connivance of the Americans. Yuan mostly just wants to go home to his fiancée and mother and is not notably ideological. War and camp conditions make both sides bitter, fierce, and vindictive. There’s a theatricality to the Nationalists’ atrocities — showy torture-killings of those prisoners who’d rather go home to China rather than repatriate to Chiang’s Taiwan, forcibly tattooing waverers with anticommunist slogans to make it impossible to send them home — lacking in their Communist counterparts. That, and his desire to return to the mainland, send Yuan to the Communists. They’re depicted as having their shit together, relatively speaking. But ideology has its costs- knowing that they’re depicted back home as traitors and insufficient communists for the crime of having been captured, the communist leaders in the camp mount increasingly foolhardy and bloody resistance campaigns, getting dozens of their own people killed for pretty much nothing and ruthlessly suppressing criticism.

In the end, it’s all for nothing- the war ends, the prisoners are repatriated, and for all the sacrifices the communist prisoners made to resist their captors, they’re still treated as officially suspect. If anything, it’s easier for Yuan, not having been a party member before- he had less to live up to. Yuan is depicted as writing the story as a memoir when he’s an old man in America, staying with his kids. The Americans in “War Trash” come off as somewhat ignorant and childish — one of the officers who interrogated Yuan at one point has a plaster bust of his own stupid head he paid a prisoner to make — but the closest to satisfaction Yuan finds is sending his kids to their country for school and then going himself. This might borrow from Ha Jin’s own experience- one of the major literary figures of the generation that came to prominence around the Tiananmen Square massacre, he currently teaches at BU and lives, in all places, in my hometown of Foxborough. These sort of war stories usually lack a “good” Hollywood resolution, and this ones not an exception. ****

Review- Ha Jin, “War Trash”

Review- Eley, “Forging Democracy”


Geoff Eley, “Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000” (2002) – Socialist movements were the main actors in moving Europe away from monarchy or limited oligarchical representational schemes to something like democracy after the mid-19th century, and Geoff Eley lays out the process in this book. Democratization in Europe was driven by socialists fighting for the expansion of the franchise (and freedom of speech and the press), and organizing against the successor to monarchy as the great impediment to people’s control over their lives: capitalism. Eley masterfully balances the big picture of broad changes in European society and socialist politics with picking particular examples from across Europe to illustrate the dynamics involved. “Forging Democracy” is a highly valuable source book for people who want to know when, exactly, social security legislation was passed, or which party joined which International when, along with being a pretty good read.

Socialists accomplished the task of democratization both through organizing and mobilizing masses of ordinary people and through expanding the definition of politics- most importantly politicizing control over labor and the economy. When they failed — when they couldn’t move a given society towards democracy, or when they themselves took steps (leaps, sometimes) away from it — it was largely because they stopped actually representing the people or else decided on a hard, arbitrary stopping point for where politics ends and so too does the democratizing vision. I don’t generally have enough of a dog in any of the various inter-left factional fights that Eley lays out — and lord knows there’s enough of them — to be bothered by his even-handed approach. There’s blame — and praise — to go around.

It’s inspiring at times but also kind of depressing. A lot of the savage-cum-petty disputation I see among leftists online is them going through the motions of these long-ago figures, enlisting them as dead manikin props in a game of decontextualized referents and overlaying their scripts onto the various petty disputes and personality conflicts in their own organizing lives. But then, what would it be like if we actually did get our shit together (to the extent that anyone really does)? On the one hand, the various socialists of yore do a lot of impressive organizing and achieve some very important gains (more than we look to be doing). On the other, they consistently fall into infighting, lose a lot, or else gain some measure of power and either devolve into dictatorship or else staid bureaucrats uninterested in challenging capital or expanding democracy (or into staid bureaucratic dictatorship). A lot of what socialism achieved were the remains of or reactions to more ambitious agendas- bourgeois politicians working with social democrats (or postwar Communist parties in Western Europe) to expand economic democracy because they’re afraid of revolutionary upheaval, etc. Nobody’s program actually goes off the way they think it will, including more moderate actors who avow themselves as having flexible (or no) programs.

I guess that’s politics for you, and it’s not as though bourgeois politics sounds great if described critically either. I guess part of the issue is the contrast between the unique transformative promise of socialism and the reality of the sort of politics it takes to get anywhere, even to stay in existence in repressive societies. Premodern political philosophers like Machiavelli, whatever they lacked in transformative vision (hard to see that kind of secular transformation when everyone craps in a box), had a lot of insight about political process as a relationship between people, political/social structures, and time. I think sometimes leftists elide thinking about these things and basically punt towards the transformative vision- we’ve got such good ideas it has to work out if people are true to them (and then squabble about what that looks like, etc). Eley doesn’t challenge that directly but it’s not his job. His job is to present the story, and to me, that story tells us that our vision is fundamental to what we do- but not enough, not by a long shot, and neither is any particular formula for political action. We need to actually think and decide for ourselves, and take the task seriously enough to think critically about the situations we actually live. *****

Review- Eley, “Forging Democracy”

Review- Perich, “Too Late to Run”


John Perich, “Too Late To Run” (2014) – the adventures of Mara Cunningham ratchet up a notch in this, the latest and to date last installment of my friend/comrade’s Boston-based crime-thriller series. She has to cope with arsonists, militia dudes (out in Worcester County, natch), smarmy crooked FBI people, and the occasional fuckboy.

Looming behind it all is a big bank! The normal subprime shenanigans weren’t enough for one banker, so they go a few further notches into open criminality, setting off a chain of events involving deadly arson and the taking down of a local crime boss with whom Mara had a tense but reasonable relationship. She winds up caught between her day job at a dying newspaper, her side gig working with the crime boss’s charming retainer trying to figure out what happened, and an offer to work at something like buzzfeed. She’s got a lot on her plate, and people keep burning stuff down around her.

I’d say this latest volume is the best in terms of having a lot of bravura scenes. I especially liked Mara leading a crowd of Occupyish protesters to chant the name of an evil banker she needed to flush out, and a scene where someone tries to arsonize the main character on a MBTA train car was memorable, considering how much time I’ve spent on them. There’s a lot of interesting facets and characters, which I like. I’m a little foggy as to exact details of the scheme Mara stumbled upon- this happens with me and crime fiction sometimes. But the main gist is that Mara, and a number of ordinary people, are caught in the gears of a ruthless capital machine, between big impersonal crooks like the bank and small crooks with a face, like a crime boss. Ultimately, none of them are good for society as a whole, and will take everything you’ve got- as Mara finds out personally. She has lost a lot by the end of the book, and I’m curious to see how she comes out of it. ****’

Review- Perich, “Too Late to Run”

Review- Liu, “Death’s End”


Liu Cixin, “Death’s End” (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) (2010) – At one point in Kurt Vonnegut’s “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater,” his roving guilt-ridden alcoholic millionaire narrator Eliot Rosewater crashes a science fiction convention. He drunkenly praises the assembled writers as “the only ones who’ll talk about the really terrific changes going on,” “the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distances without limit.” Eliot admits that the scifi writers “couldn’t write for sour apples” but still holds them in high esteem next to the modernist boobs his foundation generously funds: “the hell with the talented sparrowfarts who write delicately of one small piece of one mere lifetime, when the issues are galaxies, eons, and trillions of souls yet to be born.”

Liu Cixin is exactly the sort of writer Vonnegut had in mind, fifty years after the fact. His “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy (though apparently everyone in China — where apparently it’s near Harry Potter levels of popularity — just calls them the Three Body Problem books) spans hundreds of years (technically millions) and concerns at least three or four interstellar civilizations and dozens of important characters. “Death’s End,” the last, longest volume, could easily be a trilogy itself, dealing with at least three distinct phases of Earth’s struggle with its first alien contactees, Trisolaris, and against the predatory Hobbesian chaos which Liu depicts as the cosmic baseline. The scale — and the abandon with which Liu throws himself into it — is worth the price of admission for people with that particular itch. You know who you are.

Liu also fulfils the other part of Eliot Rosewater’s soliloquy on scifi. It’s too much to say he “can’t write for sour apples.” Among other things, he might be a shit-hot prose stylist in Chinese and get lost in translation, but even with that he gets across some of his crazy shit in space in fine aesthetic fashion. But his characters are, by-and-large, thinly drawn, especially in this last volume as compared to the first. It’s almost as though as the action leaves Earth, the characters leave human emotional reality… which is something Liu would agree with, to judge from some events in the book (generation-ship passengers getting all weird), but not in the way I mean.

At bottom, characters in “Death’s End” are extensions of and stand-ins for Liu’s main concern, technological models for humanity’s future in space. The main character, Cheng Xin, is an astrophysicist from our time who, due to (oddly convenient) hibernation technology, winds up alive, awake, and relevant to stages in human development centuries apart. She is also the receptacle for Liu’s ideas about gender, which take a much more central role in this book than in its two predecessors.

Cheng Xin is brilliant and morally good- too good, Liu argues, basically because she’s a woman. Twice, her compassion and unwillingness to end lives lead her to immensely destructive decisions. The first time she refuses to hit a deadman’s switch that would lead to the destruction of both Earth and its Trisolaran invaders. Trisolaris nearly destroys humanity but is stopped by people — men — outside of Cheng’s decisionmaking power doing some dimensional biz. The second time, she does the one thing a nerd like Liu will never forgive- she declines to invest in faster-than-light travel. There’s many risks involved in FTL (including potentially alerting uber-powerful galactic neighbors), and once again, Cheng’s femininity won’t let her take them. Then, wouldn’t you know it? Some other alien species entirely sends a weird thing that turns the Solar System into a flat stanley — a dimensional weapon — and people can only get away on faster than light ships! If only that lady hadn’t stood in the way of science with her lady-concerns!

For what it’s worth, Liu doesn’t indulge in the troweling-on you get in other (Anglophone) scifi. In fact, he doesn’t clearly blame Cheng at all- several surviving characters (there are still a few humans around, due to earlier interstellar voyages) point out that the decisions she made were complicated and no one could know the right choice. They also point out that an interstellar future for humanity isn’t necessarily an unalloyed blessing- the universe is a dark place, full of super-powerful, amoral space powers constantly doing insane things to each other like turning other civilizations into Flat Stanleys or slowing down the speed of light somehow. But the basic conflict in the book still hinges on gender essentialism- Cheng’s essential femininity (in the storied tradition of gender essentialism, held to be the sole possessor of virtues men like to profess as good but don’t want to actually have, like compassion) vs the cold hard logic of men/the cosmos.

I don’t know where the gender conversation is at in China, or where Liu is in the Chinese gender conversation. But you don’t need to be a radical critic of gender roles to get that there’s some pretty hard women (and a lot of men who maybe aren’t the suicide-bomber type) out there. You’d figure anyone would be able to consult their own experience — or, failing that, watch the news — to get that point. Like Paul Cao, who tipped me off to this aspect of the book when I reviewed its predecessor on here, I look forward to reading a thorough feminist critique of the series. I’m not equipped to do that myself.

So, where are we at the end of the Three Body Problem? We’re in a space of infinite possibility — Liu has a gift for imagining awe- (and terror)-inspiring feats of science and engineering — and bottomless fear. There’s no real solution to the Hobbesian mess of the “Dark Forest.” No one opts for Iain Banks’ fully-automated gay space luxury communism, or if they do they don’t last. The more advanced space civilizations — the kind that can unilaterally rob a solar system of one of its dimensions — aren’t any more enlightened than the Red Guards whose actions in the Cultural Revolution impel Ye Wenjie to start Earth down the path into the Dark Forest to begin with. A certain degree of escape is possible — if you can flatten three-dimensional space, you can also carve out bubbles in time — but even that endangers the rest of the universe (though you have to wonder why anyone with the opportunity to quit the game would care about the other players- that’s kind of the point). Arguably, we need to chuck the universe and start again at a higher dimensional plane- that’s the closest to hope Liu holds out.

What happens to the Solar System and most of humanity due to Cheng’s soft-headed refusal is depicted in such a horrific, pathos-laden manner that it’s hard not to reflexively wish Cheng hadn’t put the kibosh on lightspeed. But on the time scale of the universe, he tells us, it barely matters. There’s still almost a hundred pages of book left after the Solar System and most of humanity gets 2-d’d, after all. Liu clearly sympathizes with the hard-headed (read- nerdish) men who want to take to the stars. But his pessimistic take on the universe won’t let him depict expansion as the key to utopia. Survival is closer to a universal law in Liu’s world than anything else (certainly more than the supposedly base-line speed of light!)… but survival, and the universe, is morally disinterested and highly dangerous in its own right… and we’re stuck with it. ****’

Review- Liu, “Death’s End”

Review- Perich, “Too Hard to Handle”


John Perich, “Too Hard To Handle” (2012) – What better time to catch up with a friendrade’s thriller e-book series than when working the tail end of a tedious, low-energy temp job? The second installment of the adventures of Mara Cunningham, a news photographer with a knack for getting into sticky situations, moves along at a propulsive pace and delivers the genre goods.

Mara finds herself up against two seemingly insurmountable forces: cop pathos and disappointing family. Her older brother, a small-time hooligan and many-time loser, had been missing for a decade after a score gone bad, but he seems to be back. He’s tied to a string of cop-killings that send Boston and it’s police into the sort of heightened state of vengeful paranoia that the police (and, arguably, the city, proportions of it anyway) seem to be always waiting to jump into.

The truth is considerably more complicated than “improbably daring hoodlum suddenly becomes cop-assassin” or “innocent man framed,” and its into that murk that Mara must dive. That’s a dangerous place to be- immersed in a besieged-victim mentality, the police, including “good” cops with whom Mara has long-standing relationships, are in no mood to parse subtleties or put up with someone outside of the tribe looking into matters. That Mara finds a trail of police corruption and violence as she tries to bring her brother in peacefully doesn’t dissuade the blue wall very much.

The denouement — the exact scheme the crooked cops and Mara’s brother were in on, and how and why it went wrong — is a little foggy, but the takeaway is clear enough. Vengeful unaccountable power calls forward poorly-conceived revenge (which makes power more vengeful and less accountable), and we’re all caught in it, one way or another. ****’

Review- Perich, “Too Hard to Handle”

Review- Perich, “Too Close To Miss”


John Perich, “Too Close To Miss” (2011) – Believe it or not, but once upon a time, crime fiction was a lefty genre. As the genre shifted in the 1920s and ’30s from the genteel amateur detectives of Doyle and Christie to the more hardboiled mode we’re familiar with, it was injected with social realism that used real-world class struggles and oppression for framing and dramatic tension. Figures like Dashiell Hammett (an ex-Pinkerton who went left so hard he wound up on the blacklist), Ray Chandler, James Cain, Chester Himes, and many more cranked out genuine classics that were highly popular and conveyed a hard-hitting social critique without sacrificing story by becoming didactic (even when they could have used some education- see their attitudes towards gender). It was honestly something of a miracle.

Of course, nothing that good could last. Mickey Spillane came along and hijacked the genre tropes for his (to use Mike Davis’s phrase) “sado-McCarthyite” potboilers. Joseph Wambaugh, Jack Webb, and their imitators colonized (and cross-fertilized, and saturated) TV and the paperback market with their fatuous good-cop fantasies. Eventually, the crime-fiction right got its own genius with James Ellroy, but that was much farther down the line, and by that point, crime fiction in general wasn’t what it was.

My friend and comrade John Perich is doing his bit to bring the tradition back with his Mara Cunningham stories. His first novel, “Too Close To Miss,” treads in familiar territory — gritty Boston crime-land, which Dennis Lehane and his various imitators have been dishing up to us for a good thirty years now — but finds some new paths. We have many of the familiar tropes- the flawed hero, Mara, a photographer who enters into the action because of an affair with a married man; the web of corruption in which the local gangsters are in many respects the least reprehensible element; sexualized danger; urban blight contrasted with hollow gentrified urban glitz. There’s some first-time-novelist hiccups but a good solid frame (and some tense, well-described mayhem).

But as the story picks up and the pieces fall together, we get something a little more, the same sort of thing which made Chandler something other than a dude with a clean prose style (and some bad stereotypical depictions of people outside his demographic). It’s not the “social consciousness” that delivers tedious lectures- it’s a way of looking at the violence and hierarchy undergirding the whole social structure, the grime and the glitz just the same. It’s not that the bad guys aren’t bad, aren’t just as grotesquely sociopathic as the Lehane model of crime fiction, based in individual psychopathology (aided by an uncaring social system) would have us believe. It’s that our system is built structurally to enable the petty, individual sadism of powerful men- gendered pronoun used advisedly. The mystery Mara finds herself in is all about money, but money isn’t just money. It’s power, and at its best, crime fiction can illuminate power — its manifestations, its abuses, what it does to all of us — with a higher intelligence-to-pedantry ratio than just about anything else. I’m excited to see what the next books in the series do with it. ****

Review- Perich, “Too Close To Miss”

Review- Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History”


Federico Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History” (2017) – My former professor Federico Finchelstein (from back when I was a mere stripling grad student at the New School) does some pretty good global history in a book that makes the bold move of trying to resolve some of the historiographical questions about fascism by throwing in an examination of another knotty topic- populism. Fascism goes part of the way toward explaining our moment, Finchelstein argues, but primarily because of the imprimatur it has made on populism, which he says essentially picked up fascism’s mantle- though with crucial modifications.

On top of all the other complications of making an argument in the already knotty fields of the history of fascism and populism, there’s a terminological aspect here that’s probably tricky for most Americans. When discussing populism, Finchelstein is more talking about Juan Peron than William Jennings Bryan or the People’s Party in the US, which he refers to as “proto-populist.” He breaks down populism to include right-wing variants (like Geert Wilders), left-wing variants (like Hugo Chavez), neoliberal variants (like Fujimori and Berlusconi), and the patient zero, Peronism, which has been tried in all three registers at various points since Peron took power in 1944.

In Finchelstein’s view, a few morphological similarities tie these populisms into a single taxon. Populism posits “the people” of a given nation against a designated other within the country- an “antipeople.” The antipeople aren’t just seen as people with other ideas, or with wrong ideas- they’re the enemy, full stop. Populism does not suspend democratic practices or engage in the sort of widespread, lethal violence that fascism does. But it is, essentially, authoritarian democracy- enshrining the union of people, nation, and leader (that’s one thing the agrarian Populists in the US lacked- no single charismatic leader figure) over and above the legal, institutional framework as the true expression of democracy. Populism does not generally break the state and create a new one in the same way fascism does, even if populists claim that’s their goal (and even if their incompetence severely damages the state). There’s a certain extent where to which the performative aspect of populism becomes its own point, where fascism’s performativity always worked towards the goal of a new man and a new society. People still vote; a populist can even lose power that way, and have done so, though Finchelstein doesn’t really go into what happens to his category the day a populist leader decides, say, the antipeople Deep State rigged his reelection campaign to prevent him from Making (Wherever) Great Again. Alberto Fujimori pulled a presidential coup in Peru, after all (but was run out of office more-or-less peacefully years later, fwiw).

Probably the greatest strength in Finchelstein’s work is the global extent of his analysis. “Global history” is the hot (not so) new thing these days, but while the archival breadth some historians manage is impressive, it’s often at the expense of analytical depth. This isn’t the case in this book- Finchelstein genuinely manages to decenter Europe in a book about fascism in an analytically useful way, a really impressive feat. His attention to African, Asian, and especially Latin American fascisms and populisms provide a chain of evidence for his assertion that populism picked up where fascism left off- as a way for ambitious movement politicians to conceptualize a mass, anti-liberal, anti-communist politics, after fascism proved to be something of a bust for those purposes. Many of the same leaders who dabbled with fascism came to define the populist style — many of the techniques fascists develop to mobilize people on an anti-socialist/liberal platform, without the direct assault on democracy or the massive, open violence — especially in Latin America and most notably in Argentina.

There’s subtleties in this argument which can make it hard to swallow. Finchelstein, an Argentine, is not notably sympathetic with populism, but grants that in many of its forms, it has actually fought dictatorships (including in actual guerrilla action, as the Montoneros did in Argentina) and expanded political participation, as we saw in Venezuela. It’s jarring to read in one book about how a political movement is both the inheritor of fascism and an expander of democracy. Having worked with Finchelstein, I know he is not sympathetic to the totalitarianism school, which lumps much of (sometimes all) popular movement politics, left and right, onto the totalitarian spectrum. He distinguishes populism, in hard and fast lines, from socialism and communism- as do most socialists and communists. But it’s still odd to see the lumping in of left-populists, from left-Peronists like the Kirchners to Syriza and Podemos, as inheritors of fascism, even in a strictly morphological sense. Among other things, it seems like the key watershed for left-populism in our moment isn’t the fall of Berlin in 1945 but the fall of Communism in 1989. If right-populists were faced with the question of how to do mass hierarchical politics after Stalingrad, and that effected this epochal change, surely the 1989 moment was just as much of a watershed for the left? As it happens, I’ve emailed Federico about exactly this question. I’ll keep you readers updated on his response!

Finchelstein places Trump squarely in the right-populist camp. I agree with this assessement, but have less of an issue also calling him a fascist (which I mostly reserve for rallies- no need to be academic at a rally) than Finchelstein does. Even with the modifier “right-” and even being skeptical of populism versus socialism, “populist” is still too decent a term for Trump and his true believers. Finchelstein uses most of the book to very carefully lay out his cases, citing chapter and verse, on both fascism and populism (which, I reiterate, are both fields heavily weighed down with internal disputes- he’s right to be cautious). He does not get much into the differences in how to fight a right-populist versus in dealing with an out-and-out Mussolini/Hitler-style fascist. If anything, a lot of the distinguishing factors he lays out — the way populists work more through mass media and culture (especially gender ideology) than through specific, fight-able policies — almost seem harder to fight than open fascism, given the state of play politically and culturally. But uhh… I guess it’s good to get an exciting new historicization of the precise lineaments of how fucked things are down? For the record? *****

Review- Finchelstein, “From Fascism to Populism in History”

Review- Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier”


John Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier” (1879) – The knot at the heart of all Civil War memoirs is that the contrast between the story of a war — full of blood, pain, failure, comedy deriving from all of these things, and other messy human realities — in language that a late-19th century American publisher (and audience) would find acceptable. Ulysses Grant had help from his friend, Mark Twain, though even his written orders show the lucid, forceful prose quality that make his memoirs a classic. Lost Cause propagandists like Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early could more easily pitch themselves to the cheap sentimental romanticism that rhetoric of the era encouraged than could Union people and abolitionists (though lord knows both tried).

John Beatty, an Ohioan who rose to Brigadier-General over the course of the war, created a classic with a consistent voice and a wry critical eye. He saw heavy action at Stone River and Chickamauga, but for the most part he talks about marching and camp life. If language is generally inadequate for the experience of battle (though there have been some decent tries), it can do wonders with the display of humanity that is an army on the move, and Beatty’s language is keenly suited for the Army of the Cumberland as it marches through Tennessee and parts of Alabama and Georgia.

His battle descriptions are decent but the real visceral stuff he packs in surrounds food, cold, exhaustion, and smells. He records the songs the men sing (seemingly all of them some genre of ethnic impersonation or another- German, Irish, and French as well as the imitations of black peoples we’re familiar with) and amusing incidents. He talks about the endless politicking. At first this is mostly between officers; seemingly ever ambitious man from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois saw the war more as an opportunity to make connections than anything else. But eventually a different kind of politics takes hold amongst the men- over the course of the war, you see them come to see themselves as a liberating army, and Beatty takes pride in that (and castigated both dithering, soft generals like Buell and domestic dissidents in harsh terms).

Neither Beatty nor his men are exactly “woke” — black dialect humor abounds — but he (and, in a rough way, seemingly many of his men) are deadly serious civic republicans. Beatty can be humorous but that’s a flip-side to his deeply-held belief in both preserving a union and creating genuinely republican institutions for everyone in it… and with his frustrations with both the rebels and those on his own side who won’t take the war seriously — who see it as a means for career advancement or a temporary inconvenience or whatever. The story of the Union in the Civil War was, in many respects, the story of deeply imperfect people trying — and in more ways than one would expect, succeeding — to be equal to an epochal historical change. Beatty’s book is a great look at what living that change was like. ****’

Review- Beatty, “The Citizen-Soldier”