Joseph Hansen, “Death Claims” (1973) – Murder and insurance fraud in rundown California beach towns and amongst used booksellers — fancy first edition types, not the kind of places I frequent — is the order of the day in this second in the Dave Brandstetter mysteries. Dave is an insurance investigator- tough, cynical, honest, and gay. Hansen was the first big openly gay American crime writer, and Brandstetter walks in the shoes of hardboiled private eyes like the Continental Op and, especially, Philip Marlowe. Ray Chandler didn’t like gay people much- to the extent Chandler was a leftist, he was very much in the old west coast, Jack London mold that saw deviation from the norms of white working class masculinity as a threat. But I think Hansen saw in Marlowe, the archetypal detective hero Chandler created, a way to explore gay themes. Chandler might not have liked the gays but he made a hero out of a loner with sensitive perception, fine taste (Marlowe is forever judging clothes and interior decor), and a code of honor which he rigorously adheres to despite it being at odds with the society around him… perhaps that sounded familiar to Joseph Hansen.
In any event- John Oats, life insurance policyholder, goes for a swim in the ocean during unlikely weather and drowns. There’s a variety of people around him — a new young lover, an angry ex-wife now shacked up with his former partner in bookselling, a squeaky-clean cowboy actor — but signs point to his son, with whom he was close. Brandstetter unknots the mystery through persistence and perceptiveness, and it helps he sees things — especially certain aspects of relationships — that are opaque to others, especially cops. In the end, we wind up with a tale of opiate addiction and blackmail, and there wind up being plenty of candidates for who took John on his final swim. On top of it all, Dave has his own domestic issues to worry about, as both he and his boyfriend are in love with dead men. This was by and large pretty good, though I could see it getting a little tired, over the course of ten or twelve books, Dave solving these mysteries basically using gaydar. But they’re decent crime novels and an interesting depiction of gay life just before Stonewall- “Death Claims” is set in 1968, and I’m curious if subsequent installments will deal with the increased prominence of gay people and their claims for rights. ****’
Jeannette Ng, “Under The Pendulum Sun” (2017) – A friend of mine who read this book and didn’t like it described it as “claustrophobic.” Amusingly enough, so did one of the quotes from a positive review put on the back of my copy of the book! Well, I agree with both of them. This dark fantasy novel, about a Victorian lady who goes to the realm of the Fae to find her brother, a missionary who went to spread the word of the Lord to the fair folk, does indeed summon the feeling of the walls closing in. The lady, Catherine, has to stay in a creepy old house. Stuff shifts around. No one talks normal. Eventually her brother comes back but he’s cold and probably traumatized. Also, a weird fairy queen takes up residence in the house. It’s ominous!
It’s an interesting concept but also a little bit of a strange call to have this whole fantastic world of fae and restrain most of the action to one creepy house? Moreover, the world of the fae, what they can and cannot do, is so arbitrary it’s often hard to get a grip on the stakes of the narrative. I get that it’s hard to make irrationality, like what the fae represent, consistent while maintaining its essence, but if you can’t figure it out, you should go back to the drawing board rather than writing a novel about the fae. Ng, one of the big liberal social media firebrands of current SFF, also partakes of the idea that the Victorians were so stupidly fanatical they’d try to convert, in this instance, — nonhuman people. — Fanatical, sure, stupid, no- when Victorians threw their lives away, they usually had a reason, and they could be pretty canny about their use of the God stuff, even when they wholeheartedly believed in it. There’s a predictable twist and some weird sex stuff and ultimately it just wasn’t that interesting. I can’t actually remember why I put this book on my list, I’m not normally into goth-y stuff, but I’ll try not to judge the aesthetic as a whole by this lacking representative. **’
Marie Vieux-Chauvet, “Love, Anger, Madness” (1968) (translated from the French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur) – This was great! Marie Vieux-Chauvet was already a leading light in Haitian letters when she wrote this triptych of novellas in 1960. Born to an upper-class family, she was one of few women accepted in Haitian literary circles and gained major acclaim in France, where Simone de Beauvoir ushered “Love, Anger, Madness” into print in 1968.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the ghoulish CIA-backed dictator, was in charge of Haiti by then, and you can see his censors wouldn’t like “Love, Anger, Madness.” The latter two novellas deal directly with people — families from the Haitian upper/middle class, and intellectuals — menaced by totalitarian movements led by openly kleptocratic thugs and manned by “armed beggars.” The first takes place in a similar context but has other issues in mind as well. If the translation of the Haitian Creole Wikipedia entry on Vieux-Chauvet is right, the Duvalier regime bought up all the copies of her books in Haiti to keep them from the public, and killed some of her relatives. She fled to New York, where she died in obscurity a few years later.
“Love” is probably my favorite of the three, the story of one Claire, oldest daughter of a locally-prominent family and an old maid (and virgin) at thirty-nine. Told in queasily intimate first person, we are immersed in her jealousies, mainly of her sisters, one married to a white Frenchman and the other wild and promiscuous, in her neurotic rituals, and her fears. The Frenchman flirts and dallies with all three sisters while helping to strip their part of the country dry of resources for his firm back home, and then wonders why no one rebels against the secret police who help him do it. The sounds of torture waft from the police headquarters at night, and the local secret police chief is one of few men to indicate interest in Claire. She devises dramas and tries, with more or less success, to conscript the people around her into them, and in the end, bursts out in violence against the restraints around her. If you’re used to literature about women going mad due to the constraints on rich white Anglo-American women, well, the pressure cooker is even worse in a place like Haiti.
The other two stories are also great. “Anger” is about a family that wakes up one day to find the blackshirted “armed beggars” taking their land. This is no social revolution, there isn’t even a pretense of redistribution beyond the hands of the criminal elite. Like many Haitian households, this one is multigenerational, and all the family members stew and consider their own vengeance. The grandfather and crippled grandchild dream of revolutionary revenge. The mother drinks, the son plays soccer with supporters of the blackshirts and considers how to save his honor. The father equivocates and winds up selling his daughter to the criminals. He double crosses them, but the damage is done. In “Madness,” Haitian poets and intellectuals find out how much their writing and internal debates are worth as they’re besieged in a broken-down old house as the blackshirts take over.
The prose is beautiful, by turns lyrical and epigrammatic and never overly flowery or sentimental- Vieux-Chauvet knew the Caribbean, knew racial lines shifting like sand but hard as steel, knew vodou, knew poverty, knew what sex looked like in this kind of environment where power and despair loomed so large, knew the beauty and the ugliness of the island, respected the power of all of it, and rhapsodized none of it. Her Haiti and her Haitians are mythological — if one people on this earth deserves to be mythologized, it is they — but entirely human. This accomplishment alone would put this work at the top of my list in terms of fiction I’ve read this year, but there’s more to enjoy. I recommend this highly to anyone who likes quality fiction. *****
Lauren Oyler, “Fake Accounts” (2021) (narrated by Rebecca Lowman)
Jia Tolentino, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” (2019) (narrated by the author)
Noah Sapperstein: You wanted to save drama, but you have created nothing worth saving.
– Hamlet 2 (2008)
Thinking and writing about the Internet and identity has gotten so tedious that when I found out that Lauren Oyler, whose acclaimed new debut novel “Fake Accounts” I was listening to at work, wrote a “scathing” review of well-known Internet scribe Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, “Trick Mirror,” I fantasized that maybe they could get into a rivalry, like Nas and Jay-Z or at least Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, to lend some interest to a contemporary literary scene that sorely needs it. It doesn’t really look that likely to materialize. Tolentino tweeted something implying the strange intimacy of being read with such thoroughgoing disgust as Oyler displayed towards her (and also turned on Kristen Roupenian, author of viral hit short story “Cat People”) was somewhat enjoyable, and to the best of my knowledge that was that. I’m not on Twitter so I learn about these things via looking stuff up on Wikipedia and the like.
If there’s one thing Oyler is capable of in the literary sphere (beyond conveying a vague impression that she’s heir to Susan Sontag and/or Joan Didion), it is conveying disgust. “Fake Accounts” drips with disgust: for New York and Berlin, the cities in which it takes place; for every character within it; for the Internet, which is marketed as the novel’s subject; for most forms of human expression; and for the novel’s first-person narrator. This disgust expresses itself mostly through treating its objects as obvious subjects for disdain and expecting the reader to go with. This isn’t too difficult, given that the subjects are generally things like guided Berlin pub crawls, white middle-class liberalism circa 2017, online dating, and so on. As I tired of this book, I could “go with” the disgust mainly in the direction of the narrator, though I noticed a certain disgust differential in the narrator’s favor with which I could not agree.
We’re in the usual shell-game here, “is the narrator (nameless, natch) the writer???” The answer to shell games is to not play, or flip the table over and take the scammer’s money. So at this point I pretty much assume these first-person narrators are author-substitutes (and generally, implicitly, audience-substitutes too). Like Oyler, the narrator is a younger-millennial writer from a lower-middle-class background who went to an elite college and wrote for a kind of bullshit Internet publication (Oyler was a Broadly writer). I considered that maybe Oyler was basing her narrator on the writers she works amongst and despises, like Tolentino or Roupenian. But this is a woman who is fine using the word “hysterical” — rather throws it down like a gauntlet — to describe the writers she and her narrator hates, and the narrator does not come off that way. What clinched it for me was when the narrator declared she didn’t like any music except for jazz or classical. No way would anyone looking to make fun of most millennial scribblers give their target that character trait, but it fits right in with the critical brand Oyler has been building, modernism’s revenge (but still willing to talk celebrities). The narrator is the author, or anyway, close enough.
The story, presumably, is the made-up part, though it’s really more outline than plot. In early 2017, the narrator finds out that her sort-of-boyfriend, Felix, runs a popular right-wing conspiracy theory Instagram account, and has kept it entirely secret from everybody. This is where my complicity, the complicity most marks have with the people who con them, comes in. This plot gambit is the major selling point of the book in the copy about it. I allowed the copy to convince me that the novel would explore identity in the Internet age, and what I (thought I) knew about Oyler from other reading and what I saw of her public performance of self — a prickly intellectual, young but self-assured, highly critical of the poor state of contemporary letters, a Baffler contributor — convinced me it would be smarter than most such explorations. That’s on me, I guess- failure to be sufficiently critical, though this book has made a big enough splash it might have been inevitable that I’d read it at some point even if I thought it was going to be bad.
And it was pretty bad. It wasn’t about identity or the Internet or any of that. It’s about what most contemporary literary fiction is about- romantic relationships, and the (supposed) impossibility of connection we all (supposedly) experience. Neither of these are bad topics for fiction in and of themselves, though both are overdone and the latter takes a lot for granted. But Oyler has nothing interesting or original to say about them. Her narrator, after discovering Felix’s secret Instagram, goes to the 2017 Women’s March in DC for the weekend and decides to break up with him when she gets back. She has an ambivalent time among the pussy hats and on her way back gets a phone call informing her Felix has died. Thrown (despite the fact they didn’t seem to like each other that much or have been together that long), she flees to Berlin, the city where she and Felix met. She does some light online-identity-play herself as she compulsively goes on online dates and feels self-conscious about participating in the anglophone gentrification of the German capital. She finds out one last terrible truth about Felix, and that’s all she wrote.
The plot is dull, but really, what drove me over the edge into despising this novel was, I guess, what can be called the ethos of the narrator/author. In some books, and again we can harken back to Oyler’s career as a critic, where she implies that good literature is difficult modernist literature (not that she does anything as straightforward as lay her own cards on the table), that makes me a bad reader. The author is dead, yadda yadda. Well, fuck that, I’ve got google, and moreover, the narrator lives, and I’m about ready to call it a rule- unless you can prove otherwise, first-person narrators are authors, in a mirror with a certain degree of distortion. What we’re supposed to buy from the author/narrator in “Fake Accounts” is that she is a smart person and that her disgust for the world around her is motivated by her intelligence and sensitivity. She’s aware it’s unhelpful much of the time but we’re supposed to buy that as part of the package, self-awareness being an important part of being smart and/or good in contemporary English lit-fic-adjacent circles.
But Oyler does not sell it- she doesn’t sell it for the narrator who might or might not be her, and she doesn’t sell it about herself in her criticism. In fact, I need to reach into the altogether happier world of genre fiction to find a comparison- that moment when writers who are distinctly non-geniuses try to write their way into the heads of the geniuses they make up: Orson Scott Card with the genius kids in “Ender’s Game,” Thomas Harris with Hannibal Lecter (and to a lesser extent some of Lecter’s opposite numbers), Robert Anton Wilson with assorted guru figures in “Illuminatus!”, examples could be added. But at least those characters are vehicles for interesting shit happening. Both the unnamed character, and the persona of Lauren Oyler, critical crusader for literary standards, at best would be a vehicle for criticism of low points in our culture. And they can’t even land that!
In her criticism, Oyler dings fellow (overeducated millennial woman) writers Jia Tolentino and Kristen Roupenian for lack of precision in language- that’s where the “hysterical” crack directed at Tolentino comes in. Tolentino sees how the structures of online content creation and consumption demand performances of emotionality (especially from women), she criticizes it, and yet, she still writes about how she “was driven insane” by various things that, clearly, left herself sane enough to become a successful writer and marketer-of-self, Oyler points out (with the smug self-assurance of someone pointing out you criticized capitalism from a smartphone which you presumably bought on the market). She also points to the ways in which contemporary writers (and here Roupenian gets more of the criticism) exploit tragedy porn and treat acceptable targets of scorn — like creepy, or even just normal and somewhat horny, men — as less than human. More than anything, she hammers home the point that contemporary culture is cheap and sloppy, which is fair enough (though again, she says nothing unique or compelling in the process- to quote a modernist of the sort she gives her rare nod of approval toward, “there’s no there there”) all things considered.
So having said all that, presumably, Oyler can blow our asses away by getting at what things are really like, right? Unmotivated as she is by market logic (she calls herself a socialist at various points and has written for the Baffler but shows nothing but contempt for virtually any opinion she writes about, especially any form of protest or direct action against Trump)? Ivy League schooled but keeping it real with West Virginia roots? Wrong again! For all that it’s dull, the story is also unrealistic. Despite her novel being temporally framed by politics, Oyler avoids saying anything about it other than to broadly imply it makes people stupid (Felix, for instance, we are carefully told, was right-wing on his Instagram but not openly racist or antisemitic, thereby absolving narrator/author of any responsibility to out him). There’s nothing interesting in the writing. It sounds like a flatter version of the sort of testimonials — “it happened to me!” — that used to be a big thing on the Internet. Disgust can be a powerful motivator for interesting, passionate language, from Juvenal’s time to Joan Didion’s. But it doesn’t help here, presumably because making writing actually interesting would be participating in the game of communicating with other people, which in turn would spoil the illusion of aloof superiority which is Oyler’s real ethos and her narrator’s, too.
Oyler titles one chapter “Maybe If I Wrote Like This I Would Understand Them.” “Like this” is writing accounts of her dates in Berlin, where she does some light lying (really, any millennial who grew up with the Internet and any creativity has lied more and better than the narrator, or Felix the arch-liar for that matter), not in chronological order but theming dates according to the signs of the zodiac. The “them” in the title is, basically, women. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the main thing giving emotional backstop to Oyler’s performance of intellectuality and literary potential is that she is, as the cliche used to go, “not like the other girls.” She doesn’t wear her ever-so-mediated feelings on her sleeves and she won’t bore you about Beyoncé. She’s just barely clever enough to avoid trying to be “one of the boys,” but especially given that “the boys” (understood as youngish white or white-adjacent literary fiction types) basically don’t meaningfully contribute to English language letters these days, it wouldn’t help her if she tried, not with the market she’s trying to get over. Again, think Sontag or Didion- the woman above it all. That’s basically what’s going on here. I thought the zodiac-themed chapter was the best chapter in the book, in no small part because by going on a bunch of dates we met a bunch of characters. They weren’t good characters, the strangling solipsism of this book prevents that, but at least they weren’t the narrator or Felix. *’
Dana: We’ll all remember this moment for the rest of our lives! It was dramatic, it was visual… Octavio: It was stupid. Dana: It WAS stupid! But it was also THEATER!
-Hamlet 2 (2008)
This is the second of three nonfiction “beach reads” I decided to listen to this summer, in what now seems like an ill-conceived attempt to, I don’t know, juice interest in even my tiny review audience. It was based on a jibe from an old friend of mine about how I read too much advanced stuff. Probably not a ton of people read this on the beach. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a few do! Jia Tolentino is a popular writer on the Internet. I didn’t know she was a target for Lauren Oyler’s critical scorn when I set up a pattern that would have me listen to first “Fake Accounts” and then “Trick Mirror.” Just one of those “happy little accidents” I guess.
Tolentino and Oyler have a fair amount in common. They’re both younger millennial women who both once wrote for now-defunct women-oriented online publications (Jezebel and Broadly, respectively) and who went to elite colleges (UVA and Yale, respectively- in her review of this book, Oyler sneers that Tolentino made sure we knew she got into Yale… and a quick googling reveals that Oyler actually did go to Yale… google really wracks hell on certain snobbery patterns and you’d think “digital natives” who write for a living would grasp that, and yet, and yet, and yet!). They are both now reasonably major writers in their own respective rights. Both cover what could be called the “American awful” beat (“Fake Accounts” dwells on Berlin but has next to nothing to say about Germans), which has swallowed up so much of contemporary literary writing, both fiction and non-. It’s worth noting both are conventionally attractive women (another thing Oyler sneers at Tolentino for noticing about herself, not like Oyler doesn’t pose for the camera too)- it seems like a trend, millennial literary fiction writers having it going on in the looks department.
“Trick Mirror” is not a novel but a set of essays. Had some of them been online before? Probably? They all interweave first person narrative with exposition and analysis based on reporting or research. Like the subtitle suggest, they all discuss self-delusion. There’s the delusion that the Internet or self-improvement can make us happy, the (good?) delusion that MDMA can connect you with others and/or the godhead, the delusion that Tolentino’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, is a place dedicated to learning and gentility when really women get raped all the time (and one woman deluded herself into thinking she had been raped, sold the story to Rolling Stone, and helped perpetuate a delusion that campus rape is all lies and hype), etc etc.
The essays are pretty good. Oyler’s not wrong that Tolentino isn’t always particularly precise in her use of language and often brings things back around to herself. Well… she seems to be an interesting person! Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Houston, religious school, brief stint on reality tv, successful writer, she either is interesting or is capable of making her experiences interesting. She interweaves a lot of material into her essays, like when she discusses Houston’s religiosity, its history of drug-fueled “chopped and screwed” rap, and her own experience with MDMA in one essay.
I remember my dad coming to a Thomas Frank talk with me, maybe ten years ago or more. Dear old earnest baby boomer Dad walks up to Frank at the end of the talk, big smile on his face, thrusts his hand out to the author, and says “ok- what do we do about it?” in reference to whatever DC Gomorrah situation Frank had laid out. Frank laughed. He didn’t know. Not his business! He’s a critic. Especially now, alienated by the excesses of the “woke capital”/Russiagate/internet-liberal crowd like so many lefty scribblers have been, he’s less interested in solutions than ever before. At the time, I was lightly embarrassed. Now I’m a little more in my dad’s camp, especially as I’ve seen some of the lefty heroes of that time, including Frank, descend towards (or all the way into) a crankdom fueled by premature hopelessness.
Split the difference- I don’t expect a critic to append proposed legislation to their essays (you’ll notice I don’t). I would say it would make sense for a critic — especially one who calls themselves a socialist and/or anticapitalist, as Tolentino does a few times in this book — to at least gesture in the direction of how to fight. All too often, Tolentino throws up her hands, accedes her own complicity in eating Sweetgreen’s antihumanist salads or enjoying weddings, and collapses into miserabilism- we’re stuck with the system because the system is us. Don’t do it, Jia! You’ve got more power than you know! It’s not as though the early Christians didn’t obey Roman law most of the time, or the Russians who stormed the Winter Palace didn’t buy stuff… you can snarf your Sweetgreen and get to work pointing us where to take our pitchforks! Her work on “Free Britney” isn’t a bad start, and her chapter on “difficult women” — both a genuine feminist veneration object and one extremely easy to capture to the orbit of the sort of power that crushes the lives of everyday women — is a good one.
I do wonder, though… how much can one be part of “the zeitgeist” and still recognize within oneself the power, as part of a collective, to change it? Especially this zeitgeist, which seems to fetishize overawe in the face of complexity and of the power of the elite? I draw inspiration from the many “extremely online” people I know who joke about the brain rot it imposes but still do the work, organizing, agitating, fighting. I guess it’s more of a “me” problem. Probably I’m just enough of a little boy, playing soldiers on my atlas while my sisters watch 90210 (note- I watched too, I still remember most of the cast members, not trying to snob my dear sisters), dreaming of better (and bloodier) drama than beautiful people hurting each other’s feelings, that certain aspects of the zeitgeist will always elude me… ah well.
Like I said, I like this book, but chain listening to this book and Oyler’s before it, and reading Oyler’s criticism, brought up an unpleasant vista in my mind. The relationship between the two in the sphere of literature reminded me of nothing so much as two of the common types you see at millennial house parties. Tolentino would be the person who shows up midway through, possibly already drunk and/or high, and grabs all the attention by talking a mile a minute, name-dropping, and apologizing for talking about themselves so much whilst keeping on doing so. Oyler is the person in the corner snickering about what a dumbass everyone at this lame party is. You can go over and snicker with them, but you know they think you’re just as much of an idiot, if not more, and you know if they threw a party it’d be at least as bad. And you know if you throw your own, better party, which one you’d rather invite- anyway, I do. ****
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William F. Buckley, “God and Man at Yale” (1951) – One conservative archetype we don’t pay enough attention to is that of the tattle-tale. Especially given the way that a lot of American conservatives like to pose as tough guys and the way a lot of liberals also delight in tattling (though usually to a Great Schoolmarm in the Sky, who like most gods is curiously indifferent to their petitioners), this gets lost in the shuffle. But Bill Bennett made his bones in the conservative movement for ratting out a college roommate for smoking weed (only to wind up a degenerate gambler himself). William F. Buckley, for his part, got famous by writing this book snitching on his alma mater, Yale, for not teaching traditional virtues.
Gotta say I have more sympathy for Bennett’s pothead roommate than whoever was running Yale in 1951, but tattling on behalf of “virtue” as understood by a rich twenty-something… that’s not easy to stomach for two hundred pages. And Buckley is very explicit that snitching is what he’s doing. The book is addressed to the alumni and, especially, the trustees of Yale. If they only knew how little Yale was upholding it’s supposed values of Christianity and individualism, they’d come around and crack the whip, get all the commies and atheists out or anyway, provide “balance.”
It’s weird for a few reasons. First, Buckley leads with religion, and how Yale’s religion classes don’t teach religious faith but rather criticize religions as bodies of doctrine and social practice, a lot of the teachers are atheists, etc etc. Reading it seventy years later, it’s hard to get into the headspace, harder than most conservative writing. Religious faith on the part of the WASP-y elite Yale still very much catered to at the time had been waning for a long time by the time Buckley was writing, and didn’t get any healthier after. This decline hasn’t seemed to have hurt conservative politics, or American fortunes in the Cold War, as much as Buckley hinted it might. It’s even weirder when you consider Buckley was a Catholic. Yale was never supposed to teach his kind of religion. But I guess he thought it was the kind of material that would get the old stuffed shirts who act as trustees in the Ivy League fired up.
Then there’s the stuff on economics and social science. The thing is, it’s Yale in 1951. There aren’t any communists. It’s just liberals. They’re broadly skeptical about a lot of things (could probably have used more of that, honestly), including the free market. They had just witnessed the Great Depression and the ways in which government spending got the country back on its feet. No one is calling for workers to seize the means of production. But Buckley is wounded on behalf of the besmirched honor of the markers and the wealthy anyway, for every snide remark Samuelson or whoever (no one’s idea of a screaming lib) put in a textbook. It’s just such picayune stuff.
To the extent this book really has importance beyond launching Buckley’s career, it’s as a chapter in redefining the liberal enemy for the American right. That higher education would go on to become a perpetual target for the right when it looked to drum up cheap heat doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s also part of the game of ambiguity Buckley seems to have played his whole career in terms of negotiating with the far right and it’s concepts. In this book, liberals are the target because they sap America’s moral fiber, leaving it weak in the face of communism. If Yale men don’t say their prayers and learn free enterprise, how could they possibly compete with the Russkies (Yale was and is a prime recruiting ground for the CIA, as Buckley well knew… but maybe early CIA agents weren’t the best example of how to successfully stand up to the Soviets)? Buckley never says why his professors at Yale would do such a thing. He doesn’t come out and call them communists. He leaves it ambiguous. People can fill in what they like.
Seventy years of this bullshit, and the idea that liberalism is all a “cultural Marxist” (read “sneaky Jewish”) plot is now basically accepted by many “mainstream” conservatives. I remember when Buckley’s reputation was as the man who routed the Birchers and the Klansmen from the postwar conservative movement, making it “respectable” (never mind his remarks about the civil rights movement or gay people). He was what online reactionaries today would call an “optics cuck.” Except, he won, and helped define what conservatism would look like for the next fifty years, so I guess he was more of an “optics chad.” And he left the door wide open for the ideological descendants of the Birchers to come back. The ideas didn’t change- just the packaging.
As far as the experience of reading this book goes, Buckley was supposed to be a hot shit prose writer, very “witty.” Well, I’ve read less witty books, to be sure, and this one zipped by reasonably quickly, but I still wasn’t especially impressed. In many ways, he’s not out to impress people like me. He was out to lay the groundwork for a movement. I’m not sure what lessons are really applicable- “snitch to some rich people about meaningless culture war horseshit” isn’t really applicable to my side, alas. **
Michael Javen Fortner, “Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” (2015) – This is an interesting and frustrating book, seemingly more based on a gap than on a finding. It brings home a lot of uncomfortable realities that our political habits — especially the widespread habit, on the left, center, and right, of assuming the “real” people are with them implicitly — evade. But it does not do what it’s author sets out to do.
Who is responsible for mass incarceration? Even conservatives increasingly agree that our justice system is a shambles and a shame. Most historians and social scientists who write about mass incarceration seem to agree that white reaction is at fault- presented with the upheavals of the black freedom movement and other social changes (including a rising crime rate), conservative politicians promised white voters they would restore control (and discipline “those people”) with massive increases in police, prisons, and punishment in general. There seems to be more debate about whether this truly constitutes a continuation of Jim Crow, ala popular political writer Michelle Alexander, or not, than whether that story is accurate.
Political scientist Michael Javen Fortner sets out to do something between complicate and overthrow that story. He does this in the name of “restoring agency” to working- and middle-class black people who called for more policing and harsher penalties for crimes committed in their neighborhoods. Fortner’s case study is the politics of crime and punishment in postwar New York City. A number of black civic leaders in the city, mostly ministers, backed Governor Nelson Rockefeller as he executed a “heel turn” of sorts- liberal Republican turned architect of some of the most repressive, brutal drug laws in the country, passed in 1973.
The impulse here is clear: disillusion liberals and radicals (implicitly white, as they seem to always be in this book) who might be reading the book from their cherished notions of an authentic black working-class subject who backs their efforts and implicitly agrees with them about stuff. Black people get upset about crime, Fortner points out, experience more of it than white people generally do, and turn to the conventional remedies — police and prisons — for relief. Fortner doesn’t defend the carceral state but insists denying black involvement in it denies black agency and distorts the tasks involved in repairing the situation.
The problem here is that notions of “real” people following one or another politics can cut a lot of different ways. Speaking as a socialist organizer, I can tell you, for every collegiate lefty who fondly believes in a multiethnic queer working class just champing st the bit to fight cops and read Lenin under their leadership, there’s an (equally overeducated, usually) twitter-bound lefty who sincerely believes there’s a blue-collar, implicitly white, mass of ex-factory workers who would become socialists if only they didn’t have to think about they/them pronouns, and who would provide them with the masculine approval they failed to secure from their fathers. This shit is just endemic.
Fortner doesn’t avoid it. He doesn’t really prove that the black masses he projects onto think or thought as he claims they did (and, implicitly, do). It’s hard to really prove these things, generally- one of the pitfalls of people-based politics. Fortner proves that Harlemites interviewed by magazines at the time were upset about crime and mad at criminals. He also shows that some ministers and local politicos in Harlem were willing to go along with a powerful politician, Nelson Rockefeller, who had to seem tough on crime in order to compete with up-and-coming right-wingers in the Republican Party like Ronald Reagan (and who didn’t give a shit about black lives). There’s some interesting stuff here about how black people saw black criminals as threatening the gains of the WWII and civil rights periods that some black Harlemites saw. How representative were such people of black opinion? Whose to say? No one, in the end. Fortner further writes that people who opposed ramping up police power, like “white liberals” and black radicals like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, didn’t represent many people in Harlem. That, he doesn’t prove. At the end of the day, the assertions aren’t all that different from those of the abolitionists at whom he wags his finger.
Well… what did the people of Harlem believe or want at the time? It’s hard to say. There were a lot of them, it was a while ago now, and, this seems important but hard to actualize, it seems likely that most people of all classes and races don’t have especially coherent politics. That doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or stupid or don’t know their interests, though that describes plenty of people (a progressively lower number for each adjective, in my opinion). It just means they don’t think that much about or that rigorously about politics. This makes sense, given how politics usually is in most places- a plaything of the elite where they figure out how to screw over everyone else, with a few do-gooders on the margins trying to change things and generally failing in embarrassing fashion.
Split the difference- we, those of us who organize, can’t just fit our politics to what we think “the people” want. There’s no real way to know, and if there was, we shouldn’t do that anyway, because popular approval doesn’t make something right. We should try to convince people of what we believe (and listen to others when they have ideas that are worth having). But we also have to listen. Listening isn’t the same thing as agreeing. But people — across the political spectrum — become so enamored with their picture of a mass that agrees with them, and with a wicked minority that doesn’t, that it becomes tempting to cast potential members of that mass who disagree on some things into the wicked minority, secure in the “knowledge” that the “real people” are with you on what might actually be a fairly extended limb.
Especially with a problem like crime, it’s easy for leftists to handwave it when conservatives get as febrile as they do about the issue, and when crime rates have been low for a while. It’s easy to mock rich suburban white people terrified that MS-13 is going to steal their aboveground pool. But criminal violence and damage does happen, it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, and whether the crime rate is objectively going up or down doesn’t make people whose lives are hurt by crime feel better about it. That doesn’t mean we should uphold the carceral state, which just brings more violence to these communities. It means we’d better be ready to take the problems involved seriously and be goddamned good and ready to implement our better solutions when we have the chance. Fortner probably would have been better off writing about that than this, but it’s a good reminder in any event. ***
James S.A. Corey, “Nemesis Games” (2015) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Ehhhhhh I did not like this one as much. It feels like the Coreys have gotten sick of the workaday space world of “The Expanse” series and are throwing it away. I guess that’s not that bad- the world is fine but not something to which I feel great attachment. But in this one they tried to do too much with too little and it just wasn’t that great.
To explain what happens in “Nemesis Games” I’ll need to talk more about the spaceship crew-ersatz family at the core of the Expanse series. I haven’t done this before because most of the characters involved are boring. Admittedly, I’ve written about main character perspective-dullard Holden in these reviews, but he’s unavoidable. Like the Game of Thrones series, all of the chapters in the Expanse books are told from the perspective of a rotating set of characters. Each book has Holden as a perspective character, plus a few new ones. This one retains Holden, but the other perspective characters are the other crew on his ship, the ragtag chosen family of the “Rocinante.” There’s his girlfriend Naomi, his engineer/go-to thug Amos, and his pilot Alex. Naomi is strong and sensible in that stock scifi lady way, Amos is a tough guy who has “no moral core” save for loyalty to the crew and sentimentality about kids (which is to say he has all the moral core readers expect), Alex has… a Texas accent, because Texans settled Mars early? You can see why I didn’t dwell on them before. They’re fine for what they are but you don’t read these books for the character study.
We start off with everyone scattering! Doing errands. Naomi has a mysterious summons to her Asteroid Belt home. Alex goes to Mars to say sorry to an ex. Amos departs for Earth to bury one friend and visit another in jail. Holden is left alone out in space to bother people. Then some shit goes down! But alas, other than a sense of general frenetic activity, this shit is not well laid out. Someone’s stealing spaceships, and someone wants Naomi to do something sketchy, and then asteroids start landing on Earth! It’s all connected, somehow. Shit is getting ugly!
The problem is, none of it feels earned. I don’t want to say “real,” though verisimilitude can be an issue too. The main thing is this- the baddies (spoilers, if you care) are rogue militant Asteroid Belt settlers and some dudes from the Martian space navy. To the extent this has any basis in what came before in the books at all, it’s in one of the weakest points of the Coreys worldbuilding. Earth, Mars, and the Belt are depicted as all basically having Earth-country-style nationalisms. The Belters in particular feel put upon by the Earthers and Martians. But it always felt superficial- the Belters have silly argot and accents, part Hispanic, part South Asian, and are portrayed as hardscrabble due to living on asteroids and space stations. Especially now that the “gates” opened in previous books and settlers can go to other solar systems, the whole Belt way of life looks pointless, as does terraforming Mars. Well… it’s hard to suspend disbelief when you realize that such programs were always pointless, given that they were supposedly impelled by “overpopulation” and welfare statism on Earth. The Coreys just kind of hand-waved most of that away with stuff about the innate desire for “frontier living” etc.
I didn’t buy it, but I didn’t have to for most of the books. In this one, I was much more pressured to buy, because it formed the motivation for this random Belt faction coming out of nowhere and pulling off all kinds of crazy shit and doing genocidal asteroid damage to Earth. It strained credulity in other ways, too. We’ve followed the head of the “Outer Planets Alliance,” a Belter terrorist group turned political party, since the first book, and now we’re supposed to believe this wise, badass warrior could get completely flummoxed by the existence of a splinter faction? It’s hinted that this faction had some kind of major outside help, and I guess it’s from the Martian navy? But beyond similar hard-to-believe politics stuff (that, again, happens under the nose of their government and takes them completely by surprise), there’s no set up. It’s just kind of lame, and even hard to follow at times.
The book’s not all bad. There’s some decent action sequences. The stuff with Amos on Earth, where he needs to survive the apocalypse alongside a girl who tried to kill his whole crew a few books back, was fun. In general, it was ok seeing some of the old viewpoint characters again, as they get swept into the big drama. The sense of scale is admirable. I’m glad the Coreys decided to be ambitious. It just seems their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Their sense of big picture just isn’t there, and it reminds me of George R.R. Martin, their maitre, in a bad way. I wonder if there’s a genealogy- the coup/conspiracy-based strategizing of the likes of French revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui and the “propaganda of the deed” of turn of the century anarchists, which gets bowdlerized into the deeds of villains in early pulp fiction, which turns into an understanding of how villainous plans and politics just work… because none of it really passes muster.
Neither does the philosophizing about human nature, it’s supposed tribalism, etc., that the Coreys put in assorted characters’ mouths. It’s a funny coincidence that those memes with Vin Diesel going on about the power of Family came out when I was listening to this, because to the extent the series has a message, it’s basically the message of those memes. The ultimate bad guy (introduced in this book out of nowhere) is someone who doesn’t understand, who corrupts, family (and is Naomi’s abusive ex, natch- the Coreys don’t do the worst possible job with that relationship but it feels as pro-forma as a lot of the rest of the setup here). That’s fine for an end-of-movie/book/season speech you can zone out for. It does not for great scifi plotting make. ***’
Albert Jay Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” (1943) – Sometime in the late nineteenth century, enough switches flipped in the heads of enough of the Western bourgeoisie that a general societal freakout occurred. That class of society, then at the height of its powers, and almost certainly more powerful than any group had ever been in human history, suddenly came to believe itself beset by dangers and in the grips of irreversible decline. To the extent that this was true, their attitudes towards the situation helped bring it about. I tend to date this freakout to the revolt and suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, but more than just politics went into it. The pace of change in general — political, social, economic, technological — caught up to the people supposedly in charge, and when they realized they weren’t as in charge as they thought… a lot of things we see in culture, from corn flakes (invented to keep boys from masturbating, a concern of the freakout period) to the slaughters in the trenches of WWI, can, arguably, be attributed to the freakout.
Albert Jay Nock was born in 1870, just as the freakout was starting (maybe), and died in 1945, just as the freakout’s (maybe) ultimate fruit, the Second World War, ended. He was in position to watch the whole thing and give his peculiar takes. That he is known today, to the extent he’s known at all, as one of the godfathers of American libertarianism is both a shame, and also his own fault. He was more than that, but that he became that posthumously comes down to his failings. Libertarianism, for its part, became one of the coping strategies for other eras of crack-up, the aftermath of the sixties and that of the early twenty-first century (assuming we decide not to lump them in together).
What Nock was was a genuine man of letters, and “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” is in most respects the story of his learning to be such, and what he did once he became one. In this way, it tracks alongside “The Education of Henry Adams,” and Nock cites his fellow cultural pessimist at several points in the text, though he doesn’t try for anything like Adams’ experiments with prose structure, or his gravitas. That cuts both ways. It is nice that Nock has something of a sense of humor and is admirably direct; but he can be direct in some garbage directions and ultimately this work, while fascinating, has flaws that drag it beneath the (extremely high) standard Adams set. Later for that.
Nock grew up in Brooklyn and in an unnamed Great Lakes town, in what appear to be what we would call “upper middle class” circumstances or above. If he ever needed to worry about making a living, or ever had to seriously curtail a lifestyle of travel and good eating, he doesn’t report it. He describes an idyllic childhood of good wholesome fun with little governance from the adult world. He goes away to school and becomes “classically educated.” He is taught Latin, Greek, math, and left to his own devices for most of the rest. In many respects, that is the pivot of his whole story.
Classical education has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To Nock, it meant the key to history. The Greeks and the Romans tried everything in their roughly two thousand years. They learned all one needed to learn about how societies function. Everything else is either just technical improvement, or balderdash (not sure if Nock used the word, but he would use that kind of word). The human condition is what it is, and hasn’t changed since the days of Plato, or much before then either.
Bertolt Brecht, the kind of poet Nock (who could read German) would probably dismiss out of hand, wrote: “I would happily be wise./The old books teach us what wisdom is:/To retreat from the strife of the world/To live out the brief time that is your lot/Without fear/To make your way without violence/To repay evil with good —/The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires,/But to forget them./But I cannot heed this:/Truly I live in dark times!” Other than the forgetting desires bit — Nock has an earthy enjoyment of sex and food — “the old books” taught Nock more or less exactly that. But unlike Brecht’s narrator in “To Posterity,” he keeps on heeding. That cushion of family money probably helps, as does the option to be on the other side of the Atlantic from a lot of the risky business.
How to explain the conditions of the 1870-1945 (i.e. almost exactly Nock’s lifespan) freakout from a classical perspective? Nock never lays it out programmatically, exactly, in what is, after all, a personal memoirs. The two problems he cites most often are “economism” and “statism,” which mostly means treating the progress of either economy or state capacity as good things in and of themselves. Nock can believe this because, as becomes more and more open as the book goes on, Nock has a limited understanding of what constitutes “human.” That’s a nice way of saying he believes most people are less than human. Nock takes from the classics that culture is, essentially, for the elite. Most people can’t benefit from it- one of the claims he throws out there like a rock (and here, Nock is very much a father of libertarianism, a troll’s politics) is the notion that mass literacy is unhelpful, in fact hurtful in that it drives out good literature. The story of history is the story of elites producing culture, the masses enjoying some of the benefits in a passive way, and then for some reason, a combination of uppity masses and either weak or traitorous elites opening the gates and letting the barbarians in.
“What’s to stop the elite from just exploiting the masses, then?” Well, “nothing” is the real answer, but Nock would say something about how laws and politics are thin protections in any event, and really what makes positive change are morals and manners. Morals and manners, in turn, are the products of society and its refinement. Allow society to produce its own brilliance (in the way free marketeers, like many of the people who today think, wrongly, Nock would give them the time of day, think markets can do) and it will take care of things. But hand that power over to the state and you get rule by armed thugs and the society goes to shit. Where “economism” enters into this — where it comes from, why anyone chose to practice it if they had everything going so well in the fifteen-hundreds or early nineteenth century, which seem to be Nock’s historical happy places — is a bit of a mystery. Nock doesn’t come out and blame the Jews, like Henry Adams came close to doing, but you can see how followers might.
As you can probably tell, I don’t believe in any of this. And it wears very thin towards the end, when we leave Nock’s more interesting, younger experiences and basically go into a period where he’s an established journalist and essayist, and details how right he’s been about everything for the last forty years. But for the first two thirds or so of the book- let’s put it this way. In many respects, the saving grace of this memoirs is that Nock is not as much of a classicist as he thinks he is. Sure, he can pepper his works with untranslated (I have an old copy, not the new, hand-holding editions published by libertarian propaganda outfits, and am just fine with that) Greek and Latin and talk as though — even believe — that modern culture is trash, etc. But he’s still an American, a product of what he himself calls an entirely “economistic” culture, a child of the bourgeoisie, not even the ersatz aristocracy that gave us Henry Adams.
If he were just that classicist applying his (mediocre, pre-Nietzsche) classicism to his times, that wouldn’t be worth much, probably. As it stands, his Americanism, and his embeddedness in his times, both (further) warps his ideas and also means he can say some things that are specific to a time and place, and provide insights into those times and places, as well as into politics and culture more generally. Among other things, it’s a bit of a laugh when, along with the lessons imparted by the classics, Nock declares that things like Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”) and something he calls Epstean’s Law (after a friend who may or may not be a time traveling Jeffrey), that basically means everyone is lazy, are basic, ahistorical principles of human life. That’s some good old American dumbassery, right there. That’s one of the basic points Nietzsche tries to get across about classical civilization: they were different enough from us that the way a given user of their thought tries to wedge them into their situation tells us more, in many respects, than what the classics have to say about any given situation.
So what does the juxtaposition of classicism and good old American urdummheit — Nock spends a lot of time telling us about his American forebears, and indulges in a fair amount of Americana-nostalgia, for a guy who also pooh-poohs our “civilization” or lack thereof — tell us about Nock and his times? Well, for one thing, this “civilization” vs “state” vs “society” business is important, less for any insight provided by using any of these floating signifiers and more for how some people, in Nock’s day and our own, understand historical change. You don’t have to believe that “society” is an independent actor, opposed to the state, and the sole source of human goodness to think that changes in social behavior — manners, mores, arts, etc — are determinative (though it probably helps). As silly as it may sound to my mostly materialist, radical readership, not only is that a thing a fair number of intellectuals, from conservatives and liberals to even some utopian socialists, believe, but it is also something like common sense to a shockingly high number of people, if you talk much outside of said materialist/radical circles. This is bad (though sometimes generative) thought. But we can’t ignore it. Powerful people (and powerful amounts of less powerful people) believe it and guide their actions by it. And there’s a grain of truth- what we could call “social microphysics” can be important. Some of the excesses of the woke left can probably be attributed to the ways they are waking up to that fact, with little in the way of guidance…
There’s also the question of education. I think Nock does hit on a tendency to think of knowledge as only being good for strict utilitarian purposes. You learn what you need to learn to serve a function. I guess I wind up echoing that, too, when I don’t mean to, by saying there is a purpose to learning things that aren’t directly “useful” i.e. will allow you to serve a purpose. I felt what he said about a classical education teaching him how to think critically, in a way learning how to be a socially usefully widget wouldn’t do. I just differ on some important points: I do think everyone benefits from education and critical thinking, and I don’t think the Greeks and Romans had some monopoly on teaching about the basic elements of life. I actually think learning critical history — of the whole world — does better what Nock says classical education does, but I guess I’m biased.
While we’re at it, is there much of a point to reading this book beyond what we might learn from it? Well, to my surprise, I found there was. Among other things, classical education seemed to have done pretty well for Nock the writer. Until he gets really pedantic in the back third, his prose quality carried me along. He vividly invokes his social environments, even as you squint at some of his claims. Among other things, he gets across the feel of “reform” circles — he was a follower of Henry George (up until his cultural pessimism swallowed him), a fact some of his libertarian epigones today might have a hard time really swallowing — in the early twentieth century brilliantly… that is, of others trying desperately to negotiate the freakout. In contrast to some other readers, I love books that send me to Wikipedia — which I carry in my pocket, after all — to look up their references. It points to a whole world, now almost lost. One of the ironies of reading this is that Nock thought that truth floated free of context, but those who would try to apply his thought bowdlerize it mercilessly to fit it into their very different contexts… as Nock presumably did to the Greeks and Romans. And so it goes. That is culture, that is civilization, and that is part of why I play this game. ****’
Robert Littell, “The Company” (2002) – You know, the right work could make me eat my words, but I feel confident in saying that eight hundred pages is too long for a spy novel. I picked this book up because of the name- Jonathan Littell wrote a great book called “The Kindly Ones” and I was curious if Robert was related. He is- Jonathan’s dad, and an experienced spy fiction writer and journalist. I bought it because I am interested in the history and culture of the CIA, and like a good spy story. I guess it boils down to a long-term interest in the ways in which culture informs strategy. The CIA had (to an extent, has) a weird WASP-y culture, the kind of guys who care about abstract expressionist painting while also having relatives on the United Fruit board. Spy agencies in the Anglo world are basically where rich establishment families drop off sons who are too dumb for the family business, too weird for politics (back when that was a consideration), and too hyper for the Protestant clergy. A subculture worth examining!
Well… I think Littell tries, on both the cultural end and the genre goods end. A generous reading would say he falls between the two stools, but I think that’s a little too generous. For one thing, he definitely buys the supposed pathos of the Cold War-era CIA. Smart, soulful men (and the occasional woman), seeking truth via a mission to expand freedom, getting their noses rubbed in the grim realities of politics and espionage and waxing lyrical about it over the inevitable cocktails… give me a break.
The funny thing is, Littell could not convincingly get across the idea that his characters were that smart. He accidentally undermined his own premise, but not enough to save the novel. The closest to a main character we get is Jack McAuliffe, recruited into the Company off the Yale rowing team in the fifties. He’s a dashing, horny Irish-American who’s portrayed as a natural spy but who actually fucks up a lot and is poorly-written to boot. His WASP and his Jewish friend — covering the bases — aren’t much better, as spies or as characters. Harvey Toritti, a pastiche of various real spies, is maybe a little better — not quite as motivated by his dick, as various tedious schools of mid century pop psychology insists men, especially men of action, are — but is also a ludicrous spy, a swaggering Falstaffian gunslinger and whiskey swiller who is also magically right about nearly everything. But Littell clearly thinks of them as tragic heroes. They’re not. They’re farcical goons. You could make a good story out of that — the Coens did, in “Burn After Reading” — but not if you don’t see them for what they are.
The plot is basically the Cold War’s greatest hits, except skipping over a bunch of the stuff that would depress someone who sees the Cold War as basically noble, like the Vietnam War. The characters all take part in things like the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring, the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Bay of Pigs, the attempted coup against Gorbachev, etc. Littell gets some stuff right, like the Kennedys as feckless dilettantes, some stuff crashingly wrong, like when he has Dulles refer to Mossadegh as a “Muslim fundamentalist.” The CIA seeing the progressive modernizer Mossadegh as a fundamentalist… well, they could get facts that wrong, but in the fifties, the CIA would be about as scared of a Muslim fundamentalist as they would be of a vodou houngan, probably a little less. And he gets more stuff just silly, mainly as the rest of the world becomes a reflecting pool for sad American men. The Hungarian uprising is a good example. A tragedy, no doubt, bound to end badly- Imre Nagy, the socialist reformer, probably would have gotten it in the neck from Magyar fascists if the Soviets didn’t brutally crush the whole thing. But it’s played mainly as a heroic, last of the Mohicans stand that makes one spy big sad.
To the extent the Russians feature, it’s as a mirror to the Americans. There’s a KGB spy who’s kind of an alternate-universe McAuliffe, an adventurous nomenklatura fuckboy being played around by forces bigger than him as he seeks meaning through action. Russians can be tragic, too. Except all the Russians are ordered around by an antisemitic (of course) pedophile (you know, so you know he’s bad) master spy. Russia’s “natural” authoritarianism allows them to play the long game, you see, so this dude weaves various generational plots to bring down the CIA, the shield of America, etc etc. One way he does that is by encouraging the paranoia of James Jesus Angleton, a real guy and a real freak. Again, it could be kind of funny and interesting, but played for tragedy — and without dynamic enough action to keep it interesting on that level — it just does t work. Especially not for eight hundred damn pages! I might try one of Daddy Littell’s earlier spy novels, I’m told they’re slimmer and faster, but this one was pretty bad. **