Review- McCarthy, “The Group”


Mary McCarthy, “The Group” (1954) – Is there anywhere like New York for producing literary fiction that’s just about generic upper-middle class life there, as though it is interesting in and of itself? Paris, I suppose, and maybe London. Novels about Los Angeles are at least supposed to be about something- Hollywood, malaise, something. Maybe other countries have dedicated little literatis churning out novels dedicated to observing the minute habits of fancy inhabitants of their capitals, but if they do, I’m sadly ignorant of them. The materialist in me wants to say that you get this kind of fiction (and eventually movies and tv) set in New York because there was sufficient density of people living in and around there willing to plonk good American dollars on the counter for lengthy, closely-observed prose works on their lives starting from at least the late nineteenth century. This explains why the second center for this kind of American fiction is New England- it too has the right density of the right kind of bourgeoisie, and has since back when that kind of literature was both a meaningful status marker and a viable pastime. I say this as someone with a deep attachment to New England, and no small fondness for New York, where I lived for a couple of years.

The mid-twentieth century in the US saw a conjuncture of widespread prosperity, the maturation of mass media, and the remnants of a status culture that took highbrow literature seriously. So this was probably the high point of people eating up these kind of books, and the high point for literary New York, at least from a status/attention standpoint… it was all downhill from there. Mary McCarthy was there at the height, and at this point is probably less known for her novels and more for documenting the intellectual and personal travails of the “New York Intellectuals” (you’ll notice, they only get proper noun status in the mid-twentieth century, not before or after). This group is perhaps the most needlessly well-documented group of people never actively pursued by tabloid paparazzi. Don’t get me wrong- I’m a historian, I love documentation. But, like… we still don’t really know what the Mayans were saying. But we know A LOT about what Alfred Kazin thought about Edmund Wilson, and about what Mary McCarthy thought about a whole range of people who moved the needle back then, but other than Hannah Arendt and maybe a couple of others, don’t really now.

All this and I still haven’t described the book… eight Vassar grads experience the 1930s. They dabble in various causes (mostly naively), get involved with men (mostly lousy), and experience the general mismatch between the high degree of education they acquired and their very narrow socially-expected roles as upper class women. My understanding is that at the time, “The Group” was pretty radical in terms of depicting premarital sex, sexual assault, contraception, and so on in a realist manner. I could see how it would be a big deal at the time.

But god help me if I could tell the characters — the group members or the men in their lives — apart. All those WASPy names, all those status markers in personal possessions and food that mean nothing to me. I could track some of the ideological stuff and clung to that like a life jacket. But seeing as the whole point is that the 30s were this time of experimentation, few of them stuck with a given line for long, so… out to sea again.

This is the point where the assumptions of New York literature really starts to work against it’s supposed point (trying to be nice here and not leap to the conclusion that “the point” was always inter-bourgeois signaling). McCarthy isn’t too bad as a prose stylist. She clearly had a lot of ideas and insights about what was going on around her, as her correspondence with Arendt (I wonder if that’s her best seller, now) shows. But how many lengthy, class-signifier-laden chapters can we be expected to get through to get at whatever a writer is saying? **’

Review- McCarthy, “The Group”

Review- Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk”


Philip Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk: Essays On and Around the Alt-Right” (2017) – It says something about the state of play that the best book-length treatment of the altright qua altright that I have yet found was published online and written by a man best known for blogging endlessly about the television shows “Dr. Who” and “Hannibal.” But here we are!

Sandifer, a prolific blogger who operates in the space between nerd culture, Marxism, critical theory, and the occult, dives deep and wanders far. The bulk of the book is his grapple with the “neoreactionaries” or “dark enlightenment.” People on this end of the altright are blog-bound and unlikely to wind up in the streets wearing a softball helmet, but also the closest you get to an intellectual vanguard for the altright as a whole. He focuses on three figures: software engineer-cum-white nationalist monarchist Curtis “Moldbug” Yarvin, former leftish critical theorist and current whacked-out prophet of fascist techno-apocalypse Nick Land, and a third figure who arguably doesn’t belong- AI blogger Eliezer Yudkowsky, who isn’t an open bigot or fascist but who does share certain elements of the neoreactionary imagination. Namely, all three produce works that could be understood as horror texts, both in terms of the feelings that produced them and the feelings they induce in others (including believers). Sandifer closely reads all three with a profoundly skeptical eye but a participatory spirit. Beyond the horror-show posturing, Sandifer tries to bring out the real weirdness, the Deleuzean “monster offspring” that lingers behind the (anti-)heroic fantasies and feverish system-building, and finds…

Honestly, I’m not 100% sure. He does something like a thirty page disquistion on Blake’s visionary poems (and before then loops in a number of other theorists, such as Frantz Fanon, Thomas Ligotti, and the aforementioned Gilles Deleuze) and god help me I lost track of what he was saying, and even looking at it again, still can’t tell. Sandifer clearly comes from the same whacked-out online horror/theory/geek-culture place that Land and to a lesser extent the others come from. “Send a maniac to catch a maniac,” as it’s said in scifi classic probably a little too basic for our boy. I’m fine with maniacs — some of my best friends, etc. — but it could use some editing, is all I’m saying.

As best I can make out, his conclusion is something like the following. If there’s one thing that freaks all three of his subjects out (with the possible exception of Land, the smartest of the lot, who might just be doing an elaborate bit) it’s the fear of infection by the Other and the collapse of established categories. They want the future but they don’t want it to be weird, or rather they want it weird in a way they can control. They’re not going to get their wish, Sandifer tells us. The general fucked-ness of the future means that they can’t control it any more than the rest of us can, and their brittleness won’t be an asset- isn’t, now. Whereas understandings based on radical empathy have proven to be considerably more resilient… though it might still not be enough.

Fair enough, but the whole thing could be clearer. As I hope the preceding indicated, it’s less that Sandifer winds up going down rabbit holes so much as the whole book is rabbit holes, and I get the idea Sandifer wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s fine; admirable in certain respects, even. You learn a lot, about the specific altright people he deals with (he does a similar, if much shorter, type of existential alley-oop with gamergaters, Austrian economics, TERFs, etc) and about all kinds of random stuff. He’s discursive, chatty even. It’s fun and reasonably quotable but not necessarily the most usable text in the world. And it’s notable that beyond a chapter on Trump, he sticks to the most Extremely Online portions of the altright spectrum. These are interesting to me but I find things get clearer and more grounded (and more interesting, for my money) when you bring things offline a little. But I don’t think Sandifer wants clear and grounded. This can be frustrating.

Still- at least here we have a work that takes the altright seriously as a subject of analysis. Much of the rest of the long-form writing on the subject essentially uses it as an occasion or frame for inter-left axe-grinding, or as an example or test-case for some other set of ideas. This proceeds in a spirit — a surfeit, if anything — of intellectual daring and passionate engagement. We need that, as well as rigor and a useful political analysis, to meet our weird, probably bad, future. ***’

Review- Sandifer, “Neoreaction a Basilisk”

Review- Miller, “Nut Country”


Edward H. Miller, “Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy” (2016) – The flipping of the South from solidly Democrat territory to (somewhat less-) solidly Republican in the span of a decade or so is one of the few historical narratives you can expect, say, an average college undergrad or a comedian to know about. And they’ll have an explanation for it, too- either the democrats got less racist and/or the republicans got more, or shuffling their feet and muttering something about taxes, or whatever baroque fantasy more forthright conservatives would summon to explain matters in a way that elides the racial element.

But explanations like that, even if they’re broadly correct, don’t really explain how the change happened. Historical studies of specific times and places within the larger trend help fill that gap, and that’s what my BC colleague Ed (who very graciously sent me a free replacement of his book when my first one got straight up stolen from its packaging) sets out to do with “Nut Country.” The title is a quote from JFK, who referred to Dallas that way after receiving harsh treatment from the local right-wing establishment (only to get shot in the same city by — probably — a leftist).

Dallas brings together many of the elements that made the Southern Strategy that the Republican Party rode to several victories in the late twentieth century possible. It was a booming oil town that could diversify into other areas largely due to federal investment in the southwest, but run by rich men convinced of their self-sufficiency. You had the same dynamic of old-style Protestant religiosity and white supremacist racial attitudes meeting mass culture and suburbanization you see elsewhere. Miller also highlights a creative tension between “ultraconservatives” — John Birch Society types who saw Eisenhower as part of the communist conspiracy — and more moderate, businesslike conservatives. This is something that could have been developed more. It’s not clear where the dividing line is beyond rhetorical tone (especially as regards race) and figures oscillate between the two. This dynamic could use to be theorized more thoroughly.

But more than anything, Miller makes a strong case for Dallas as the patient zero of the southern strategy. It’s main vector was Bruce Alger, a congressman who switched from comparatively-suave country club Republican to frothing race-baiter who voted against federal milk money for schoolkids and back again as suited him. If you wonder how exactly the transition was made, “Nut Country” does a good job of showing it as a matter of trial and error. Alger tries being “moderate” on civil rights and is race-baited to defeat (by a democrat). He wins when he embraces the Dallas far-right and its combination of resistance to civil rights, Cold War paranoia, and opposition to social provision. But he, like many converts, takes it too far and comes off as, frankly, weird- too conspiratorial, too accusatory, too likely to kick off nuclear war, not unlike his pal Barry Goldwater. It was time for another pivot.

What Alger landed on — what the whole Republican Party landed on, Miller argues, from the example of Alger and other early Sun Belt Republicans — was a tone that could sell far-right politics to a mass audience. This tone was sunny (mostly), businesslike, and meritocratic. It adapted some of the language of civil rights — especially as regards equal access and due process — to protect racialized systems of privilege in housing, education, and much else. In many respects, this was an adaptation to the fait accompli of black voting and public accommodation access. The wagons needed to be recircled. I also think it was also an adaptation to national mass media- open racism or conspiratorial rhetoric didn’t play well on tv (for the moment), but appeals to “law and order” and “neighborhood schools” and “property values” did and do. This strategy, as Miller shows, wasn’t the result of a master plan from above (though it would eventually be applied that way by the national GOP). In fine free-market fashion, it was the result of entrepreneurial leaders adapting to local conditions… with healthy portions of money and fear to grease the skids some. ****’

Review- Miller, “Nut Country”

Review- Evans, “Personal Politics”

personal politics

Sara Evans, “Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left” (1980) – As far as I can tell, this is the first draft of a story that has since spread from history to the sort of apocrypha that politically-engaged people could be expected to know, and it’s more or less right there in the subtitle. The thing about the movements from the sixties is that they are extremely well-documented, or anyway, enough of them were to fill a whole literature with the comings and goings of people in SNCC, SDS, the Black Panther Party, etc. I wonder what sort of movements from that period we miss out on, because their members and epigones didn’t write as much down? Neither here nor there, I guess.

At this point, I think it’s a reasonably familiar tale: men in these movements, especially the insecure upper-middle-class white boys in SDS, routinely marginalized and often belittled the women who played key organizational roles in the sixties movements. These experiences — both taking part in the movements and facing sexism within them — formed the seedbed for the women’s liberation movement that burst onto the scene in the late 1960s and which reached its greatest prominence in the 1970s. Evans tells it as a pretty neatly dialectical story- if these women hadn’t experienced the massive let-down of movements that promised justice, equality, a real community but delivered patronizing attitudes (at best) towards them, then they would never have brought their grievances together and formed a movement.

“Personal Politics” has the strengths of the best early movement histories, especially its finely trained analytical descriptions. It also has its weaknesses- especially once the story leaves the south, it is overwhelmingly white and middle class. There were women of color and working class women pursuing women’s liberation and which engaged in a complicated dialogue with the other movements, but you don’t get much of that here. That’s largely a reflection of the blind spots within the movements Evans writes about, but it’s still a missing part of the story.

For the most part, “Personal Politics” is a fairly concise record of discrete stages leading up to the formation of the various dedicated women’s liberation movements, replete with copious drawings from the letters, diaries, and interviews of women who had gone through the various movements. Evans has some keen insight into the inner dynamics of these groups. Most interesting to me were the politics of the concept of community. Not unlike Occupy — another movement dominated by kids who had just barely started critiquing the system they lived under — the student movement fixated on its internal culture, which was meant to prefigure the transformation into the “beloved community” (like Arnold’s “sweetness and light,” it’s impossible for me to imagine how people would use such a saccharine-sounding phrase sincerely).

There’s a couple of tragic elements to this. The first is how clearly their prefigurative politics were a gesture of powerlessness (and so was their eventual turn to violence). SDS ran up very quickly against the real limits to the outside-community-organizing model. Without a base in a class that take power (like, say, the working class), you aren’t going to get real transformative change, no matter how hard you work or how sincere you are to get playgrounds for the kids in Newark or whatever.

The other tragic dynamic, more directly relevant to Evans’s book, is dealing with power dynamics within “the community.” The student movement stumbled on pretty much all of them, but none more than gender. As it turns out, goodwill isn’t enough to create good outcomes, and curdled goodwill can positively prevent them. Among the most important contributions of second-wave feminism (that’s the right one, right? I get the idea that the wave stuff can be a point of contention) is the rediscovery of the power structures undergirding institutions we all too often take for granted, especially gender, sexuality, and the family. As Evans relates near the conclusion, the movement never quite got to grips with the quandaries of organizing for redefining and taking power. But, there’s something to be said for refining the questions. ****’

Review- Evans, “Personal Politics”

Review- Jemisin, “The Fifth Season”


N.K. Jemisin, “The Fifth Season” (2015) – Jemisin might be the biggest new force in sci-fi/fantasy writing today. She’s the winner of back-to-back Hugos for best novel in 2016 (for “The Fifth Season”) and 2017 and an active blog/social media figure. She was near the center of “Puppygate,” a social media brouhaha where multiple loose coalitions of reactionaries attempted to hijack the Hugo awards process and generally troll sci-fi/fantasy fans and writers they saw as liberal or politically correct. A successful black woman writer vocal about social justice issues both within and without the SFF community, Jemisin was a special target for the worst of the “puppies,” and received a lot of vile, high-profile abuse. Backlash against the backlash helped make her a symbolic figure for liberal fans (and probably helped her win those two Hugos, the award that served as the site of much of the controversy, which has presumably inflamed the reactionaries all the more- the circle of liiiiife).

Honestly, beyond simple racism, misogyny, and various other misplaced resentments, I don’t see what problem these people could have with Jemisin’s work that they wouldn’t have with accepted favorites like George RR Martin. “The Fifth Season” is a decent example of what seems popular in big ticket speculative fiction these days: big doorstop tomes, thickly laid-on worldbuilding, character work that’s a little bit Joseph Campbell, a lotta bit RPGs, a smidgen of zeitgeisty filigree work, and a lot of portents, both for the world-shattering apocalypses the stories either promise or are premised upon and the inevitable, equally long or longer, sequels. This is pitched as softly and straightly at contemporary readers as you can get without providing cliffnotes. So don’t let any of these Puppygate trolls tell you it’s about getting the kind of stories they want. They want exactly this kind of story, but they don’t want it from a black woman who says stuff the don’t like, especially if she gets the sort of award that helps make you the face of the genre.

Jemisin comes up with some interesting stuff (more than Martin does, in my opinion). The world of “The Fifth Season” is a world of repeated cyclical geological apocalypses. Societies are organized around their inevitable collapses. There’s also a downtrodden subsector of the population which can do magic, drawing from the energy of the overactive tectonic plates to go super saiyan (is that the term? I’ve never watched the show) and do all kinds of stuff. These magicians are hated and feared, and usually killed if a special order doesn’t find them first, to train them to use their powers. There’s a lot of “Steven Universe” in this- magical outcasts named after rocks. But sadly, it has little of the show’s whimsy (or its aesthetic- harder to pull off with the written word in any event). This is serious biz, ended worlds and lynched children and ancient secrets. It’s heavy.

Jemisin also does some interesting stuff with narrative but it doesn’t land quite as well. There are several diverging and reconverging viewpoints, which is cool, but about a third of it is in second-person. That is an experiment that doesn’t work- I found those portions took me more out of the story than the third-person parts did. And in general, “The Fifth Season” suffers from pacing issues, as it tries to shoehorn a plot into all of its worldbuilding… and, of course, set up for the inevitable sequel. It’s often unclear who is where, doing what, why, even with the handy maps and glossaries. I sympathize with wanting to lay out all of the aspects of this cool world you made (and I wonder if Jemisin ran this as an RPG at some point- I could see this as being a fun setting for one). But it’s a delicate balance between a propulsive story and a big, detailed world, and Jemisin doesn’t nail it in this one. ***

Review- Jemisin, “The Fifth Season”

Review- Ngũgĩ, “A Grain of Wheat”


Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “A Grain of Wheat” (1967) – Few people really know what to do with Kenya’s decolonization struggle. No one looks good. The British “won,” but did so through the application of mass internment and terror- years after a British judge sat in judgment at Nuremberg and sent the leaders of a rival empire to the gallows for similar crimes. They covered it up well, largely by publicizing the bloodier Mau Mau killings, but these things reemerge. The Kenyan government, which was essentially handed power by the British a few years later in exchange for major concessions, doesn’t like its people to think too much about Mau Mau. The international Left doesn’t really know to process an uprising by an autochtonous, secretive, semi-religious group with few links to any of the established strands of thought or organizing- “The Kenyan Revolution” isn’t even a phrase, as I’ve seen. The Mau Mau themselves and the Kikuyu people they emerged from were, of course, brutally suppressed and terrorized and then lived under dictatorship of Kenyan leaders unfriendly to the memory of the uprising, and didn’t have the best avenues to tell their stories.

One who found a way to tell some of the story is the great Kikuyu writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and he paid for his impertinence- he was jailed by the Kenyan government and exiled after that for twenty years. In “A Grain of Wheat,” Ngũgĩ tells the story of several members of a rural Kikuyu community on the eve of the formal handover of power. The Union Jack is going to come down, the red, green, and black of Kenya is going to come up, and presumably everyone should be happy.

Of course, people are actually unhappy. One of the great strengths of this book is getting across the sheer trauma of going through a brutal insurgency war like the Mau Mau Uprising. There’s the trauma of having fought, having seen friends die, being interned and tortured, and there’s the terrorizing of the community as a whole. Counterinsurgency works by turning communities against themselves, and the British were viciously effective at this, across much of the world but especially in Kenya. You get flashbacks to the war, but more affecting to me was the description of the aftermath. Ngũgĩ masterfully takes you into the experience of characters like Mugo, hailed as a martyr for having gone through the camps, who wants to be left alone in his hut, and Karanja, who experiences the terror of having collaborated with the British — this overwhelming source of power and terror — only to have them leave without so much as a goodbye.

Most of all, Ngũgĩ depicts the ways in which insurgent struggle renders any sort of life we would normally choose to live impossible. Mugo is defined by two choices that would be completely ordinary under normal circumstances. A man came into his house with a gun after having shot somebody and made him an accomplice in hiding him, so he alerted the authorities; a soldier was abusing an old woman, so he spoke up. One of those actions made him a traitor, the other made him a martyr, and between the two they tear his life apart. Everyone in “A Grain of Wheat” is riven by similar experiences.

And what’s worse, there’s the sinking feeling throughout the book that independence will not be all its cracked up to be. The British cut their deals with moderates and sharp dealers to keep the rich agricultural land they stole from being redistributed to the people as a whole. The old guerrillas, with their odd noms de guerre and comparative lack of interiority, still mouth the old slogans but are clearly trying to clean house, get their revenge on traitors, before a new regime acceptable to the superpowers comes in and forecloses both on their possibilities (and likely freedom) and on the promise of decolonization. Kenya doesn’t offer easy answers, and neither does Ngũgĩ. *****

Review- Ngũgĩ, “A Grain of Wheat”

Review- Hernández, “Narcoland”


Anabel Hernández, “Narcoland” (2010) (translated from the Spanish by Iain Bruce) – The Mexican cartel wars have been treated by most mainstream anglophone media as a baffling lapse into mass criminality, with substantial racist overtones- its “those people,” what can you expect? Veteran reporter Anabel Hernández refutes this story, and insists on some key aspects of the situation you don’t often hear. The most important is the collusion of the cartels with the highest level of the Mexican government, including friends of the US and supposed anti-drug crusaders like Vicente Fox and Felipé Calderon. She also discusses the role US intelligences agencies played in promoting the cartels as they first started getting big during the late Cold War, primarily as conduits for channeling money to groups like the Contras.

The war on drugs is a farce, and not the type of farce we’re used to thinking of it as- not just a miscarriage of justice, but basically fake, as far as the Mexican government is concerned and, Hernández alleges, the American government to a large extent too. At least since Vicente Fox, the first non-PRI (inheritor party of the Mexican Revolution) president in almost a century, took office in 2000, they stopped just taking in bribes from the traffickers but essentially acted as their security arm. What was depicted in our media as a battle between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, Hernández argues, was actually a battle between the Gulf cartel and the Mexican government, fighting on behalf of the Sinaloa cartel. It makes sense- in many respects, the cartels are the most powerful part of Mexican capitalism, and we know who governments tend to work for.

Hernández spends most of the book laying out the case against the pervasive corruption of the Mexican government, carefully detailing the relationship between a dizzying array of various traffickers and cops, lawyers, and politicians at a high level across Mexico. The results are damning in terms of the indictment of major figures, but a little weak in terms of historical or structural examination. In some respects, that’s good- a lot of the times the historical scene-setting in books about “exotic” material can be an essentializing gloss, not that helpful. But some pretty basic things go unexplained- like why the Mexican government chose, out of all the traffickers, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel. In many respects, the cartels (and the politicians that are symbiotic with them) are the face of neoliberal capitalism in Mexico: emerging from the ruins of the PRI’s nationalistic development strategy, utterly disconnected from and destructive to the society it’s parasitic to. More analysis of that would’ve been cool, but as it stands it’s a fairly complete (for 2010, before Guzman’s capture) and shockingly damning depiction of how Mexico has been betrayed. ****

Review- Hernández, “Narcoland”

Review- Alexievich, “Zinky Boys”


Svetlana Alexievich, “Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War” (1991) (translated from the Russian by Julia and Robin Whitby) – This is a real damn bummer, even for someone like me used both to bummer reads in general and bummers about grinding occupation wars specifically. Nobel-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich compiled a short, brutal selection of accounts of the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan from soldiers, civilian workers, and most crushing of all, mothers of soldiers. Alexievich won acclaim for positing war as a social phenomenon, and particularly by putting forward the experiences of women in the Soviet Union’s wars. This produces a much richer perspective on war than one usually gets. “Zinky Boys” (so named for the cheap zinc coffin so many Soviets came back from Afghanistan in) forms a sort of phenomenological experiment in understanding the Soviet experience of this war.

Almost the entirety of the book is first-hand accounts, with brief paragraphs of framing from Alexievich’s perspective in a handful of places. I’m used to reading accounts from Vietnam, the war most often compared to the Soviet-Afghan war. There are similarities: the terror and confusion of guerrilla war where you can’t separate friend from foe; the guilt, or defiance of guilt, or sometimes both in the same person, over a failed war fought under false pretenses but which inevitably becomes a meaning-freighted experience for the people who went over; the naive patriotism and desire to live up to memories of WWII exploited and betrayed; the breakdown in morale among the troops, corruption, drug abuse, hazing, the general feeling of a lawless nether zone. The soldiers are caught between their own feelings of guilt and betrayal and their determination to be treated as people, not as victims or criminals or symbols- also familiar to Americans from Vietnam and after.

But there were some salient differences, and perhaps this is just me being determinist, but a lot of them seem to boil down to the difference between a power at the height of its strength undertaking a wasteful guerrilla war and one doing the same as it’s in terminal decline, as the Soviet Union was. The American effort In Vietnam was confused and wasteful, but with nothing like the complete failures in supply and logistics the Soviets experienced- if anything, the Americans were oversupplied. This made major differences for Soviet troops, many of whose accounts involve scrounging or bartering for necessary supplies, or running afoul of veteran gangs who monopolized food or ammunition. There was significantly more feeling of being overwhelmed by the enemy in “Zinky Boys” than you get in Vietnam accounts, where it was always understood the Americans were stronger, just unable to bring its strength to bear.

The weakness of the Soviet state going into Afghanistan can also be viewed ideologically. Most of the soldiers going in to the war report they believed what they were told about it, but when they came back, they ceased to believe in pretty much anything but, perhaps, the validity of their own experience. You saw some of this in the US as well, but the post-Vietnam state was strong enough — and the conservative movement opportunistic enough — to turn feelings of post-Vietnam angst into a bolster for the American security state, where once it threatened to undermine it. The closest the Soviets came to a similar trick was the police turning to gangs of “Afgantsi” to beat up troublemakers, but that was more of a sign of decline than anything else. Maybe part of it was it was harder in the USSR to pretend that the soldiers had been “stabbed in the back” by civilian protest, which wasn’t much of a factor. Alexievich got plenty of criticism from Soviet patriots, but most of it of the “stop making us look bad” variety.

More than anything, this is an important document because Alexievich got people to speak very frankly, and then stood aside and let them speak for themselves. There’s a lot of raw honesty here; painfully raw especially from the mothers, who are open about their grief in a way I can’t say I’ve seen anywhere else. I know I just wrote a bunch of analysis — force of habit — but really, this is more of a book to be experienced. *****

Review- Alexievich, “Zinky Boys”

Review- Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate”


Michael Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate” (1976) – This is pretty solid “van art fantasy,” to use Garrett’s felicitous phrase. It’s the second book of the adventures of Elric of Melniboné, who Moorcock — the great lefty fantasy writer, perhaps now most famous for an essay shitting on a range of genre favorites from Tolkien to Heinlein to Watership Down (for some reason) as closet Tory-fascists — created to break with the stereotypes of fantasy heroes, but who wound up the model of a type in his own right. Instead of being buff, bluff, forthright, sure of himself, and basically good (in spite of the bad things he does), in the model of a Conan or an Aragorn, Elric is slight, decadent, ironic, full of self-doubt, and only learned to be good to spite his family and society, the saturninely evil Melniboné. This eventually became the model for many identical anti-heroic sword-slingers and the underground societies that bred them (the Drow, popular villains/antiheroes of late 90s/early 00s DnD branded fantasy, come to mind), which is now roughly as common as the sunnier kind of high fantasy hero.

In this installment, Elric, cast out of Melniboné for reasons I can’t really remember from the first one but which boil down to “wouldn’t be evil,” is wandering around, getting into adventures. He winds up on some weird boat that travels amongst planes of reality and different times. Instead of the romanticism- (and medievalism)-tinged descriptions of wandering through various European-ish countrysides you get in Tolkien and his interlocutors, you get similar wanderings but with a sort of psychedelic-inspired palate. This gets into the actual action of the series, as well, as Elric has to do Steven-Universe-style body-melds with some other swordsmen to beat some evil wizards who are also buildings, and is followed around by an ominous horse. He makes various deals with devils, some of them good, some of them tragic necessities, all bound together in the kind of universalism that the sorts of dudes who paint people with swords and chainmail onto the panels of their vans can agree on. That might sound like a dig and maybe it is a little, but I can also appreciate it as an interesting historical artifact.

The story is pretty all right if you like fantasy. One major thing Moorcock does differently from his bete noir, Tolkien, is that he doesn’t write as long. That said, from my perspective, well after Moorcock’s work has been enshrined in the SF/F canon (and, more importantly, worked into the games and movies that really propagate a SF/F’s writer’s aesthetics much farther than their books generally can), the differences between him and the fantasy writers he slammed don’t seem that big. I think there’s a continuum between the sorts of writers who seek out that space, the hero’s journey through worlds dissimilar to our own in the way fantasy generally is — less organized, lonelier (though fantasy gaming has kind of disrupted both of those traits) — that makes itself felt, no matter what else they may disagree on, politically or aesthetically. ****

Review- Moorcock, “The Sailor on the Seas of Fate”