Nicole Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age” (2020) (read by Linda Bevilacqua Farber) – Former Jacobin editor (and friend of mine!) Nicole Aschoff tries to get us past proclamations of doom, utopian nonsense, and “what’s the deeeeeal with phones?!”-level analysis in this work of popular sociology. Fun fact- the last event I had scheduled before covid was her (cancelled) book launch!
The smartphone is a big goddamned deal, arguably a bigger deal than the personal computer (except there wouldn’t be the former without the latter), and we dismiss that at our peril. It serves many functions, and moreover combines functions, in a tiny, portable, relatively affordable package, that genuinely does change the way we do a lot of things. Aschoff discusses some of these- dating, work, politics.
But she doesn’t leave off at either the possibilities that smartphones present at the moment (filming cops!), or their dangers (the Uber-fication of labor!). If there’s a target in this book, it is technological determinism, in either its utopian or dystopian guise. It is true that the shape of the smartphone’s functions, like that of any important technology, shapes society. But it’s also true that society — and social power, who wields it and to what ends — shapes how we use the smartphone.
Right now, that power is squarely in the hands of a coalition of Silicon Valley giants and major governments, and loaned out to other employers. The smartphone, in its current use pattern, empowers the powerful more than it does the powerless (though it does help the latter in a number of instances). The smartphone is a powerful tool in their hands to further their goal of instantiating a data-driven hypercapitalist hellscape.
There’s some interesting stuff here on “spirits of capitalism.” I know Aschoff is a big Luc Boltanski reader based on reading her earlier work, and his thesis that neoliberalism ushered in a “new spirit of capitalism” to replace Weber’s crusty Protestant ethic (NOT “Protestant work ethic,” a phrase which drives me up the wall). Aschoff argues we need a new spirit to envision a future where technology works for us. It would have been interesting to have gotten more on that — Marxist and Weberian insights mix in interesting and volatile ways, people on both sides (well, in my experience, more the Marxist side, but I know more Marxists) often treat the other as verboten — and what it might mean for leftist praxis. But I also understand Nicole wanted to write an approachable, short book.
For all the ways smartphones keep us hooked to the bosses and their values, disconnecting from our phones, while it may be useful (even necessary) for some, isn’t really a good option if we are going to redistribute power downwards. Instead, we need organization- and there’s an extent to which smartphones can help with that. Realistic perspectives on technology, not mythology, needs to guide our organizing understanding if we’re going to seize power and if we’re going to use it sensibly when we’ve got it. We can’t ignore it on the idea it’s not “real politics,” and we certainly can’t buy utopian promises of it eliminating politics. When the power is in our hands, we can use (and, if needs be, limit the excesses of) our technologies for the common good. ****’
J.K. Huysmans, “Là-Bas” (1891) (translated from the French by Keene Wallace) – Joris-Karl Huysmans served for respectable decades as a civil servant and wrote decadent novels in his spare time, until he converted to Catholicism and wrote sufficiently Catholic novels to generate enough sales to quit his day job. That sums a lot of it up, right there. My understanding is that Huysmans didn’t see himself as a decadent- he lived a simple bachelor lifestyle, and started out his literary career as a Zola-style naturalist. But disdain for his time and place — late nineteenth century France — and a fascination with the wicked led him to decadent literature, first with “A Rebours,” easily the most important literary novel of interior decoration going, and this novel about satanism. Huysmans wasn’t an aesthete dandy, like the main character in “A Rebours,” and like his narrator in “Là-Bas,” he never became a satanist. He liked to watch, especially things that either confirmed his disdain for his times, transcended it, or both.
“Là-Bas” contains elements of what would become the genres of horror and crime fiction, as bored writer Durtal, lackadaisically finishing a book on medieval serial killer Gilles de Rais, decides he needs to find some real devil-worshippers, “for research,” of course. A lot of the novel is Durtal kicking it with his doctor friend Des Hermies (interesting name) who knows a lot about the occult, and a humble church bell-ringer named Carhaix, who represents a (mildly patronizing) picture of the vanishing “good Catholic” of France, someone with a downright medieval level of devotion. They’re joined by their hatred of the (supposed) mediocrity and corruption of their era. The Middle Ages were a better time, they declare, though with much more Gallic irony and acceptance of things like squalor and foolishness — Durtal and Des Hermies disregard much of what the church actually says — than you get with a lot of medieval nostalgists. But how are these three going to find the black mass Durtal wants to see (Des Hermies is too “over it” to bother and Carhaix is too much the good simple Catholic)?
“Cherchez la femme” as a roughly contemporary Francophone literary figure would have it- Durtal starts getting anonymous horny letters. A little detective work reveals they come from Madame Chantelouve, the wife of a literary Catholic friend. In keeping with his then-contemporary neuroticism, Durtal can’t decide whether he wants to go through with an affair or not, but once he finds out that Chantelouve has connections with the biggest contemporary Satanist, a real bad dude. Eventually, she leads him to a black mass- Durtal, naturally, doesn’t participate, just watches. This scene, along with the recitations of Gilles de Rais’s murderous career, are what put “Là-Bas” on the censor’s desk as often it appeared there. The depictions of blasphemous deeds aren’t that much to anyone who’s seen all that shit done on MTV by scrubs like Marilyn Manson, but the speech the satanist priest makes against god and Jesus is pretty impressive, even in translation. After all this, Durtal and his bros eat dinner among the bells again and Durtal thinks, “maybe I’ll be Catholic after all,” maybe a little out of shock from what he’s seen but more in reaction to the way it confirms contemporary banality.
This is a weird, interesting book, less for the peculiarities of the occult scene and more for its form, pacing, and general ethos. French antimodernism is both less “catchy” than the usual Anglophone (or German, or Russian for that matter) variants but also usually a bit smarter, with a sense of actual tragedy. To the extent this is a mystery story, it’s less a whodunit and more what they used to call a “city mystery” – as cities expanded during the industrial revolution, people wrote loosely-plotted novels revealing their seamy undersides; part crime novel, part travelogue, part pornography. What lies at the heart of fin de siecle Paris? A deep rot, naturally, an underground war between good and bad occultists (but even the good ones are sketchy and basically off-camera), the base materialism of the age causing people to seek out older truths, but only when they think no one’s watching, etc. If you want to be an artist, you have to seek out truths that transcend the age, and that’s hard to do- the church might be the path of least resistance, even if it also produces occultists (the big bad satan priest is, naturally, a defrocked Catholic priest).
Again, Huysmans was an actual writer and a smart person and he was writing before whatever threshold in the mid-twentieth century was passed before we had to make all of these thing schematic. “Good” and “evil” barely show up- in fact, the throughline with the Gilles de Rais stuff, the payoff for Durtal narrating his notes, isn’t De Rais’s evil- it’s his redemption. When he got caught, after some brief tergiversation, he confessed and threw himself on the mercy of Mother Church, which he once served alongside Joan of Arc. According to Durtal, the parents of the children who De Rais brutalized and slaughtered all forgave him, prayed for him at his execution site, before they did him in. This, more than anything, is what Durtal/Huysmans sells to us as the greatness of the Middle Ages: not our sense of good and evil, cleansed of modern accretions, but an alien sense — none of it “makes sense” — that allows for an alien greatness. You wouldn’t see that in a contemporary good-evil narrative, I tend to think. The battles between occult forces would be hard to game out in any of the RPG systems I know about. It’s genuinely irrational, and that’s hard to get across, but Huysmans did it, even with his viewpoint characters of drawing room detectives. ****’
Jesmyn Ward, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (2017) (read by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rutina Wesley, and Chris Chalk) – This is a perfectly decent example of contemporary literature! Ward tells the story of a young mixed-race boy named John, his black mother Leonie, and some bad trips, both physical and psychological, that they take. The story is set in more or less contemporary Mississippi. Leonie and Jojo live with Leonie’s elderly parents in a rural part of the Gulf Coast. The two take a trip with Jojo’s toddler sister Kayla and a friend of Leonie’s north to Parchman, the ex-plantation prison where Leonie’s lover and Jojo and Kayla’s white dad, Michael, is being released after serving a stint for drug dealing.
Parchman, Angola, Sugarland… I’m aware that the prisons of the north, your Atticas, Sing-Sings, Norfolks, are no happy valleys, but those old southern plantation-prisons skeeve this New Englander right the fuck out. Ward leans into that haunting feeling. Jojo’s grandfather did time in Parchman and tells the boys stories that never seem to come to a conclusion. On the way up to the prison, the travelers encounter many of the inconveniences that come with life when you’re poor. Car trouble, police trouble, drug trouble, above all puking baby trouble. It is a genuinely uncomfortable ride, in a highly relatable, human way that Ward gets across effortlessly.
Leonie was the most interesting character for me, especially because she is a rare thing in literature: a bad mother, portrayed unsentimentally (the voice actor puts a little “poet voice” in her, all breathy, but it comes to work for the character) but sympathetically. Is there any more agreed-upon villain than the bad mom? Whole theories of crime, of civilizational collapse, have been placed on her head! Murderers can be made cool and relatable, terrorists, thieves, seemingly every crime under the sun, but not a shitty, selfish, indifferent mother (as someone whose mother is none of these things, I relate to why people would be repelled). So Leonie is interesting- she’s those things because she is weak. Aspects of her life that tried to make up for her weakness just mire her further: she genuinely loves Michael, and so has babies with him that she can’t properly care for. Guilt over that makes her mothering worse. Guilt and trauma — her brother was murdered, her lover arrested and imprisoned — drive her to drug abuse, which doesn’t help anything. Some people don’t have what it takes to raise kids. It doesn’t make them evil. They probably shouldn’t then have kids, but people make mistakes. Ward conveys well the weird lassitude of the structurally fucked.
Ward’s humans are humans, and so are her ghosts. The family is immersed in the supernatural traditions of the black people of the Gulf area. Leonie’s mother (dying of cancer- no one has a good life in this book with the possible exception of a crooked white druggie lawyer) practices conjurings and prays to the divine feminine in various forms. Leonie sees her brother’s murdered ghost when she gets high. Jojo has a more impertinent ghost problem- the ghost of a Parchman inmate, who did time with his grandpa, following him home from the jail. Jojo doesn’t want to deal with ghosts, he’s only thirteen and has to take care of a toddler most of the time because of his weak mom and absent dad. He tries to find ways to get rid of him. Terrible revelations from his granddad are what the ghost is after, but he doesn’t go away, and soon enough Jojo is seeing more ghosts, all the black lives ended by violence in that cursed part of the world.
All in all, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” was pretty good. Being me, I preferred the human parts to the ghostly. But the ghosts weren’t too much of an intrusion. Mississippi is probably roughly midway on my list of states to visit — mostly as a fan of blues music, I’d like to see the Delta — but this didn’t exactly light a fire under me to go, more due to its painfully vivid summoning up of inconveniences (you really, really want to get that baby some pepto or dimetap or something) than its horrors. It’s good to see literature carrying on. ****’
Robert E. Howard, “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” (2003) – More genre homework. Lovecraft and Howard, Howard and Lovecraft, handing the torch (and a metric shittonne of baggage) down from the pulps to the nascent scifi/fantasy scene, subjects of adoration, exorciation, tribute, parody, pastiche, and endless imitation. They were friends, too! Penpals, natch- neither got out much. Howard killed himself when his mother died. People talk about the irony, this big, strong man, creator of rugged, devil-may-care heroes, living with his mother and unable to live without her. To me, it’s less ironic and more painfully sad. I’m close to my mom, too, though I think I can navigate the end of her life without terminal self-harm.
Anyway! Conan! He’s got thews, whatever those are (apparently it’s an old word for “strength” and not a weird word for “thighs” like I at first assumed) and he knows how to use them. This collection of Conan stories includes about half of the original Howard stories from the thirties, and nothing but Howard stories. This is somewhat rare- interlocutors, bearers of the torch (or handlers of the baggage), votaries of the cult, have interpolated their own work into the Conan mythos (and his other works, and Lovecraft’s stuff too), most notably fantasy writers L. Sprague DeCamp and Lin Carter but plenty of others too. Other Conan collections mix them in like you couldn’t tell the difference.
You can tell the difference. I wasn’t wild about any of the Conan stories. But there’s a sense of mystery, limitlessness, and foreboding in Howard’s Conan stories that just isn’t there in the various imitators. They say that Conan is a male power fantasy, someone for the nerds reading the pulps to project onto, and that’s true enough in both Howard’s and DeCamp/Carter/whoever’s versions. But the element of escaping into a different kind of world stands out much more starkly in Howard than in the imitators. This is ironic, as later fantasy worldbuilds much more extensively and generally more rigorously than Howard ever did (there’s a similar disconnect between Tolkien and later fantasy, though it’s hard to say that Tolkien did not worldbuild with rigor).
Conan’s world is loosely-jointed history fan fiction, the creation of a young autodidact stringing together evocative words, names, and dynamics from the emerging fields of archival history, anthropology, and archaeology. It’s it’s “gigantism and ineptitude,” to use Borges’ phrase, it resembles mythology and draws us more closely in, to a feeling if not to a reality, than the more schematic, “logical” takes on worldbuilding that followed DeCamp and the others and that feel like maps for theme parks much of the time.
Theme parks work better than mythologies if you want a real plot to follow. Plots aren’t something Conan does in the story. Conan is just Conan. He finds himself in situations- plots are something others weave, and Conan bashes his way out of them with strength and courage. This is because Conan is a barbarian, and barbarians are simple, strong, straightforward, whereas the civilized are complicated, individually weak if collectively strong, and tricky. This is drawn from various old historical ideas, some of which gained new currency during the extended bourgeois freakout about “degeneration” that was in full swing by the time Howard was born.
The starkness of the divide, along with being a little laughable to people who know history better, also “works” on an atmospheric level. Howard clearly prefers barbarians but doesn’t skimp on what the way of life costs- Conan is always confused except in battle, and lives a bare and frustrating life. He comes from an impoverished people, unimaginative to the point where even their gods are dull, to whom the Viking-manques Conan fights amongst in some of the stories seem opulent. Civilization could solve some of these problems but brings up others. Life is basically bad.
There’s also the well-known racism in the stories. It’s probably less bad, anyway less hateful, than Lovecraft’s. Howard’s register was less Lovecraft’s terror, and more rage. To the extent that rage had a real target, it was sophistication- wizards piss Conan off, even when they’re helping him. People being uncivilized, as the black people in Conan invariably are, isn’t a problem to Conan, but presumably is to the reader. It’s also worth noting that “orientalism” wasn’t a critical term of abuse at the time, but a mode of entertainment (not unlike “minstrelsy”). It makes sense- living in a coal-smoke town or lonely plains shack, without movies, tv, or radio, hearing tales of the sumptuousness of some other part of the world, studded with intrigue where yours was dull and workaday, would be compelling. The Conan stories are orientalist to the hilt, in both that sense and the (degraded contemporary version of) Said’s sense. It doesn’t justify anything, necessarily, but the lines of superiority-inferiority aren’t always that clear (as they generally were in minstrelsy), and I think one could go into it with relatively good intentions… but yeah, it’s jarring to modern sensibilities.
All in all, these stories really aren’t great in and of themselves — the sameness of the plots, such as they are, the frequency of deus-ex-machina resolutions, the thinness of the characters and needless multiplicity of indistinguishable cultures (Koths! Hyboreans! Etc) — but it’s worth reading these to understand the shape of the genre more, maybe move on to other sword-swinging writers inspired by Howard, ala Charles Saunders, Fritz Leiber, etc. Maybe I’ll try out Solomon Kane one of these days, too. ***
James S.A. Corey, “Persepolis Rising” (2017) (read by Jefferson Mays) – This is the seventh Expanse novel! There’s one more currently out and another coming in November. Might as well finish them!
This one was better than the previous two installments, which entailed the Coreys (it’s a house name for two dudes) putting their world of a few-centuries-hence solar system settlement through the wringer. It’s not as good as some of the other, earlier novels. It’s thirty years after the last book! I guess there’s access to anti-aging drugs, because except for a rueful thought and allusions to graying hair here and there, most of the characters established in the series are still doing pretty good. Perspective-dullard Jim Holden and his Strong STEM Woman ladyfriend Naomi are about to retire from the adventuring life and let their remaining friends take over the “Rocinante,” the “Millenium Falcon”/“Serenity” of the series, but we know that means shit is going to hit the fan.
When the Coreys blew up their world in the previous two novels, there were two main culprits. We spent most of our time with the radical Asteroid Belters of the “Free Navy.” Their friends, a faction of the Mars Space Navy with an inscrutable agenda and took off through a series of alien interstellar travel rings to a faraway system. It’s those folks, now called Laconians after their new home, who come back thirty years later to ensure Holden can’t retire. It turns out they’re led by a megalomaniacal space admiral, Duarte, who has a plan to unify humanity into a big space empire. They come out of their space gate and start throwing beaucoup high tech space weapons around, and capture the space station where Holden and crew are waiting to go their separate ways.
Here’s the thing with the Laconians: the Coreys humanized them until they really didn’t seem that bad, and all the fighting really did seem pretty pointless. This is something of a problem with their worldbuilding in general and, I think, with the view on humanity they peddle in this series. They basically seem to think that political ideas are bunk, cover for “tribal” power conflicts and a desire for power embedded in “human nature.” It’s funny- in midcentury, you summoned the power of the thought of (real or purported) high minds, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, the Founding Fathers, to end discussions, now you do it with the power of things beneath the mind- human nature, pathology, etc…
Anyway! The Laconians think they should be in charge of humanity because Duarte has a genius master plan to expand across the stars and because they’ve got good military discipline, they’re rational. Those aren’t great claims on the loyalty of a species, I’ll grant. But nobody else has a great claim, either, in Expanse-world, and I think that’s due to a combination of mediocre writing on the Coreys part, and their mediocre thinking about what drives human loyalties. The closest they came to anything sensible were the Belters, a sort of proletarian nationalism ala Sorel developed among the asteroids and space station habitats. Even that is weakly developed and contingent, especially thirty years after Holden brokered a deal that granted the Belters a lot of power in the solar system. There’s some allusion to a “Martian Dream” of terraforming planets and with it, redesigning society, but it doesn’t seem to mean much and also seems to have mostly upped sticks to Laconia. What the Earthers are up to other than cruising along due to inertia (and the dreaded welfare state!) and almost being apocalypsed in previous books by the Free Navy is hard to say.
So, when the Laconians come in and start taking stuff over with a minimum of violence, stated intentions of including everyone in their project, and seemingly overwhelming force… why do people care? Why bother resisting? I can almost hear nerds sputtering “but… but World War Two!!” Well, what about it? The Nazis had an agenda, one that really didn’t work for people other than them. Even then, most of the resistance came from people who had a belief system that motivated them: either a belief in a special relationship between their nation-state and the eternal that getting conquered by Germans would tend to traduce (DeGaulle, Churchill, etc) or else a belief in some humanistic order that the Nazis utterly opposed (mostly Communism, to a lesser extent liberal democracy). And even then, and even with all the provocations the Nazis, some of the worst (both in the sense of wickedness and the sense of incompetence) occupiers in history, most people didn’t rebel.
So the underground resistance angle that animates much of the story really doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. The rulers of the space station the Laconians trap most of our characters on are basically the Spacer’s Guild from “Dune” minus the freaky bits. Even Drummer, the viewpoint character who runs the organization, admits it’s not much as a political motivating force. Why does anyone care, especially enough to risk their lives? It kind of makes sense for Holden, he’s always doing dumb shit. And from there, it sort of makes sense for his crew. But they all act like it’s a no-brainer! I get that granting anyone power gives them the ability to abuse it. I just don’t see what power the Laconians tried to seize that the spacers guild or one of the planets didn’t already have, especially considering the harsh rules that space habitation necessitates?
Even after people start killing Laconians, the response isn’t that harsh. The Laconians commander, Singh, is one of the more interesting characters, but also raises questions. He’s pretty weak! He vacillates between harsh and lenient responses to provocation, but even his harshness isn’t that harsh by normal conqueror standards, let alone conquerors on a delicate space station. Why did the Laconians put this guy in charge? There’s various tantalizing hints about Laconian culture, a brutal utilitarianism under a veil of philosophical rationality, but we don’t really get enough to understand their motives. I guess I’m supposed to think it’s just “human nature” again?
Anyway, this book wasn’t bad. It had some cool battles, both fleet actions and underground guerrilla space station stuff. The characters feel more broken-in, even the new ones- the Coreys elegantly convey how the bonds of the “Rocinante” family changed and deepened over the decades they skipped over. The Laconians are the closest thing to a good idea the Coreys have had for a while, and it’s linked to their other good idea, the protomolecule, the ancient alien weapon/engineering tool that makes stuff all weird and eldritch but also powerful. It seems the Laconians rampant use of protomolecule stuff might be summoning up whatever killed off the protomolecule-masters long ago. This is kind of a weird transitional book, leading to the last two, but it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the Coreys either got better ideas, or didn’t lean so hard on their mediocre ones. ***’
Anthony Trollope, “The Prime Minister” (1876) – I read about one Trollope a year. He’s probably my favorite Victorian novelist. I like the (relative) frankness with which he deals with his society. This is the fifth of six novels in his Palliser series, all having to do with Plantagenet Palliser, fabulously wealthy aristocrat and politician troubled by conscience. There’s always a lot going on in a given Trollope novel, though, at least the big ones (this one is big) – some politics, some marriage biz, a crime or two. “The Prime Minister” is no exception, with two main plots. As the title would lead you to expect, Planty (can’t remember if anyone calls him that in the books, but I do) becomes Prime Minister, in this case, of a coalition government, trying to ride herd on both Liberals and Conservatives. He’s a bit of a drag, possessed by notions of duty and a simple desire to be useful- all of his fabulous wealth and power means nothing to him, you see. It’s up to his wife, the Lady Glencora, to play the social game that could make the whole thing work. She overdoes it; he underdoes it; it doesn’t work well.
Then there’s the plot involving Emily Wharton and who she should and shouldn’t marry. She’s the daughter of a rich solicitor from a respectable family, who’s in love with Ferdinand Lopez, a financier in the City. Her dad doesn’t like it, because Lopez is foreign (Portuguese!), possibly a Jew (not a lot of Portuguese Jews, in Portugal anyway, circa 1876 but ok) (also he converted), and his parents weren’t gentle-folk. Various people prevail on Daddy Wharton to see past his prejudices and so they get married. But it turns out the old man was right! Lopez is a scoundrel. He seems nice enough for the first third of the book. But he reveals himself, once he marries Emily, as something worse than crooked (which he also is): he’s pushy. He talks about money in indelicate ways, even with ladies and Dukes! He gets his, in the end, and Emily marries a nice English gentleman.
Those of you who know me know I don’t apply a political or moral litmus test to what I read. I don’t really think Trollope was a ravening anti-semite: I think he was a Little Englander. To my mind, a Little Englander is someone who prefers English flaws to foreign virtues, on the idea that God or nature or whatever has made England and the English such that they can only really be happy and settled with each other. This doesn’t answer why they then sail around the world bothering other people so much, but no one ever said English bigots were consistent. That said, I think if there’s any type of novel to judge on a moral basis, it’s the Victorian triple-decker, and I do think this one’s a little bullshit. Among other things, the smugness — that the crusty old Englishman’s bigotries always wind up correct, even when (especially when?) he hasn’t got any good reason for them — turns the whole thing into a protracted sadistic morality play, watching Lopez descend further and further into cringeworthy servility and lying, the opposite of Trollope’s bluff, independent, somewhat stupid English gentleman, the height of creation.
Oddly enough, the Irish, or anyway Phineas Finn, hero of previous novels in the series, come out ok, if anyone is keeping score at home. Finn stands up for his buddy Plantagenet even after old Planty gets in trouble because his silly wife trusts Lopez. Finn knew his place, Lopez didn’t. “Knowing your place” does not for great literature make. There’s still enough enjoyment in Trollope’s writing and wide-scope depiction of Victorian Britain to make this not totally terrible, but it’s not one of the better Trollopes in my opinion. ***
Leslie Fiedler, “Love and Death in the American Novel” (1960) – This book is rich and filling like a big old German cake. I knew a little about what it said — among other things, had seen Meadow Soprano argue about Fiedler’s read of “Billy Budd” with her mother — but had no idea it would be so wide-ranging and ambitious, or that it would toss off huge statements with a devil-may-care bravado you seldom see in the academy these days (and when you do, it’s by hacks who can’t carry it off). In no wise did I agree with all of Fiedler’s points here, or even his main point, to the extent my historian, no-lit-classes-taking ass can have an opinion. But I was along for the ride, all six hundred pages, and exhilarated throughout.
Fiedler stormed out of Montana State University with a capital-T Thesis! American novelists, high and low, display profound discomfort with love (especially sexually active love between a man and a woman) and seem to much prefer death as a consummation than orgasm in the conventional sense. To make this point, Fiedler writes a history of the novel, its history in English (comparing it to French and German contemporaries), and the American novel, all to end with a chapter apiece on “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby Dick,” and “Huckleberry Finn,” read in the light of the history and theory he spins out.
My understanding from the cheap seats is that the historiography of the novel and of literature more generally has “moved on” some since 1960, but Fiedler’s points are still compelling, if not always entirely convincing. The English language novel as we know it, Fiedler argues, began with sentimental novels of seduction, ala Samuel Richardson, who wrote “Pamela” (seduction rebuffed, yay!) and “Clarissa” (seduction accepted, oh no!) in the eighteenth century to massive readership and acclaim. More than a literary trend, these books instantiated the Sentimental Love Religion, which fused post-Puritan Protestantism to bourgeois habitus to conflate the Pure White Virgin with Christ and marriage with salvation. Among other things, this represented a break with the aristocratic tale of seduction popular in Southern Europe, ala Don Juan, where seduction was what aristocratic men did to prove their virility and their defiance of convention. Later novels in the grand European tradition might kick against “Richardsonism” and flirt with other models of what love and life should look like, but most often take the drama of the bourgeois family — courtship, adultery, etc — as the basis of the novel of psychological depth.
Despite the huge popularity of sentimental novels in America, Fiedler sees our literature — from the eighteenth century to the time of his writing — as incapable of following the European tradition of relationship-based novels of psychological depth. Both our “great tradition” and our popular novels seem to stream around… what, exactly? Here, Fiedler’s Freudianism comes into play. He does that weird thing you see with midcentury left-liberals (many of the better ones, I’d argue) where he is definitely guilty of “normativity” — of seeing a “genitally mature” relationship between one man and one woman as the standard — while also clearly not having an issue with deviance, seeing it as the spice of life in many ways. We don’t really accept that position now- is that a mistake? Especially given the ways our culture has proven capable of “normalizing” and thereby defanging, banalizing, many forms of difference? Who’s to say? In any event, when Fiedler talks about avoiding love, he means love in a Freudian sense. That’s not great, I grant, but I would say, in Fiedler’s defense, that the American writers he cites can’t talk about any other kind of love — directly — the way Flaubert or Lawrence could write about heterosexual love due to societal constrictions. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that you could write a great novel about queer love- it just wouldn’t, and by his time hadn’t, fit into “the tradition.”
Anyway- subliterature, in Fiedler’s take, avoids Big Love because it just repeats cliches, Richardson without the stakes (Fiedler goes to bat for Richardson and his seldom-read-these-days novels — they’re huge, corny, and weirdly indirect — with a touching fervor). But capital-L big time literature seemingly can’t take relationships with women seriously, either. Men wrote the vast majority of the American novels Fiedler discusses as real art (interestingly, he includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on that list, which a lot of critics wouldn’t- more on Fiedler and sentimentality anon), the usual suspects more or less: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, with visitations from Poe (despite Poe never having finished writing a novel), Dreiser and Howells representing American “realism,” and some then-new writers like Saul Bellow. And none of them — not one — can relate to women (how’s that for a listicle!) or convincingly depict passion between men and women in a convincing, psychologically complex way. Even in stories of adultery (“The Scarlet Letter”) or longing (“The Great Gatsby”) love is never the subject: death, or escape, is.
In many respects, escape is more the subject than death, here, maybe because it’s generally more interesting. The closest thing to an ultimate theme to American literature, Fiedler declares, is escape from domesticity (represented as feminine) into the frontier or, anyway, just generally away. Even when writers clearly thought domesticity was a good thing, their subconscious (there’s that psychoanalysis again!) told on them, none more clearly than James Fenimore Cooper, cozened landowning fuddy-duddy in life and fantasist of western escape in writing. Fielder seems to sympathize- domesticity can, indeed, be a drag, especially if you don’t “swing that way” (as Melville, Whitman, and others assuredly didn’t). But these novels can’t attack domesticity directly (to the extent American literature can, it’s in various “gothic” traditions of horror and pornography). So you get this weird, occluded literature, that almost generates more power by not saying what it means to say than it could by just being like “yo, all these petticoats and all this elaborate furniture kills my vibe, fucking off with my dudes to kill whales, PEACE” directly, than it might otherwise.
You can argue that it both all fell apart, and continued on apace, after Fiedler published this in 1960. Did we ever get that great American bourgeois love novel? It seems guys like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides have tried. I despise the former and dislike the latter but I probably am looking for other things in literature anyway (more on this below). As for great work coming out of men going their own way… well, the phrase and it’s contemporary connotations says it all, doesn’t it? Do you figure Norman Mailer read Fiedler? Or Bukowski? My understanding is that this book made the rounds outside the academy. Did this inspire every midcentury dude writer to lamp out for the territories, and hate women, in ways much more intentional and affected than Melville and Twain? I don’t know, but I know that shit doesn’t play like it used to.
One question I had was, how much does Fiedler believe that the Freudian version of heterosexual love is THE major topic for “great” novels, and how much was he questioning why a tradition didn’t get translated to the American context? Clearly, he thinks pretty highly of American literature even as he presents it as weird, illuminating little-known corners like the works of George Lippard and Charles Brockden Brown for our weird literary roots. He was also an early “serious” critic to take scifi seriously, though I disagree with some of the points he makes about it here. He’s not a traditionalist. But he does seem to take this Freud stuff seriously enough to think that without Freudian normativity, something is missing. What would his critiques look like if he had the depth of vision and bravado Freudian surety lent him, but without the normative baggage?
This book provoked a lot of thoughts in me. Like I said, Fiedler spun off systems of classification and analyses of complex works like it was nothing. I especially liked his take on Hawthorne and Melville (arguably maybe Twain too) as “Satanic,” “Faustian” writers, not so much rebuking the Sentimental Love Religion in any direct way (you know how those midcentury critics feel about didacticism… or anyway, anyone other than themselves being didactic) but through presenting a world where the characters make the choice to defy salvation and heavenly (whether understood as God’s heaven or that of sentimental domestic writers) order to follow a way and pursue knowledge. Especially given how many shitty edgelords I have to read who fancy themselves “Faustian” (and also somehow “natural,” as though that makes sense), seeing the real deal is inspiring.
There’s also the issue of sentimentality, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Untrained critic that I am, I usually use Oscar Wilde’s definition of sentimentality: the desire to have a feeling without paying for it. Fiedler, and I’m guessing a lot of other critics, use it differently- something like “intentionally provoking and cultivating sentiment, that is, more-or-less officially-approved feeling. So back in the day, a sentimental novel could encourage various feelings like empathy for the heroine, sadness, even anger at the bad guys, but not, say, horniness, or even much in the way of laughter. It could be a useful definition for interrogating what feelings are permissible in polite society and what aren’t. I still think my use (and Wilde’s) is important, but I might rethink some critical projects involving sentimentality that I’ve had in mind.
A somewhat related point: Fiedler kind of leans on the term “gothic” a lot. Gothic is in many ways the opposite of sentimental, in his system. Gothic involved officially-unapproved-of feelings like terror and murderous rage. The sentimental novel traditionally probed the psychology of its characters in an attempt to illuminate (one reason why “subliterary” pre-romance fiction doesn’t count according to Fiedler), whereas Gothic shrouds things in mystery. Fair enough. I think Fiedler stumbles some when he insists that pretty much all American genre fiction, including scifi and crime, is Gothic. Comes from Gothic, in some genealogical sense, I could buy. But I actually think one of the strengths of much of genre fiction is precisely that it runs orthogonal, not (always) directly opposed to the systems of emotional classification (and regulation) that backstops much of literary fiction. It has its own concerns- sometimes concerns as deep and esoteric as any literature “bringing the torch to the back of the cave,” sometimes geeking out over spaceships and guns, sometimes both! I’m curious to read some of Fiedler’s later scifi criticism to see what he says.
Quibbles, even fundamental disagreements, didn’t stop me from loving this book, if anything they added to the experience. I hope to write something like it someday, if I can ever conjure the time and the focus and if they let me. I’m not sure who all among my readership would enjoy this as much as I have, but if you think it might be you, give it a look. *****
Michael Mahoney, “Gothic Violence” (2021) – In case you go looking for it, the author of this book goes by “Mike Ma,” and is a D-list fascist social media figure, a former running boy for Milo Yiannopolous (one only wonders what absurd abuses Yiannopolous would make a notionally straight dumbass go through to belong in his circles; and one is much more shaken by the knowledge that whatever Mahoney did for Yiannopolous, it was likely more honest and less demeaning than anything else Mahoney had ever done). I don’t play with these fascists and their nicknames- when I reviewed Mahoney’s last book, the worst book I read last year, I hadn’t bothered to google him. I saw Mahoney give his new novel five stars and beg for purchases of his self-published work and reviews to help further juice sales, but only by people who had read it, he insisted. Well, who am I to deny such a cri de couer? Especially when I can illegally download the book online (if Mahoney wants one red cent from me, he can come find me in Boston and have the “authentic experience” he is always whining about trying to get his thirteen-twenty-nine)?
At first, I was thinking this one might be better than “Harassment Architecture,” Mahoney’s prior and first literary effort. After all, “Gothic Violence” has a plot, which should be a marked improvement on its predecessor, which didn’t really have one. “Gothic Violence” follows a Mahoney-Marty-Stu narrator character who belongs to a group of Florida-based fascist surfers who use violence of various kinds to disrupt our corrupt social order. “Surf Nazis Must Conquer,” or, a callow brain-damaged Chuck Palahniuk’s take on “The Turner Diaries” – doesn’t sound good, sounds better than “Harassment Architecture.”
Well, Mahoney manages to disappoint even these low expectations. He can’t concentrate on a plot because he fancies he has important things to say. He thinks he’s an aesthete and a philosopher. So you get long (this isn’t a long book, but still) passages of undergrad writing workshop-style prose describing dreams and visions, interspersed with what there is of the plot and various manifesto-style passages about this or that thing that bothers him (his trans panic, a lot of stuff about lifting weights and drinking raw milk). It hasn’t got much more focus than “Harassment Architecture,” even with the notional inclusion of a plot.
Mahoney attracts attention for his prominence on “accelerationist” social media (“accelerationist” was a lefty thing, for a long time, still is in some quarters, but has mostly migrated to the fascist right- like “libertarian”). To the extent there’s a point to all this, it’s the destruction of our social order through violence and terror and the reemergence of “natural” “strong” men, our natural leaders, yadda yadda. Would these strong natural men have as much patience as Mahoney seems to expect they’d have for his shitty maunderings, or would they whack him with a stick to stop the noise? The idea that anyone even remotely close to an ubermensch, however defined, would want to bother with books like this isn’t the dumbest part of the “might makes right” apocalypse scenario, but it’s the part I thought about most often.
At the end, after his gang routs the system from Florida, the Mahoney-Marty-Stu wanders the beach and encounters a magical hangman who makes some dumb speeches, and then Mahoney makes his own little speech (he doesn’t indicate the hangman hangs around to listen- the closest to realism this book gets) about how whether damned or saved, he will never be ordinary (he says “average,” because he is stupid, a bad writer, a worse “traditionalist,” and can’t help but punt to rationalist-statistical language, even at the apotheosis of his transcendence- what he means is ordinary).
The only way in which any of this — this book, Mahoney’s performance of self, the whole tableau — could be regarded as anything other than ordinary is that it’s unusually shoddy, amateurish. Even then, it’s probably about ordinary for self-published work in that regard, too. He cribs flagrantly from a cheap list of recent literary figures — Palahniuk, Brett Easton Ellis, Tao Lin — that rank high among both the noxious cultural weeds (I have some time for Palahniuk but he probably hasn’t been good for literature) and the commonest role models for young men who fancy themselves literary. He can’t help but make fussy little points about lifestyle while he’s trying to pretend to be above it all. Completely predictable ones, too, for deeply insecure boys of his generation: lifting weights (why always lifting? Sheer muscle mass won’t help you that much), undercooked meat, old clothes, the usual mask-off context-collapse “I need to bolster my manhood and don’t care who notices how frantic and embarrassing my efforts in that direction are” stuff. Celebrity culture stuff, can’t keep himself from that, either- weirdly old, too, he was born in the nineties but obsesses over The Strokes, of all bands- are they retro, now?
Above all, you see the desperate desire for self-expression, the utter incapacity to get a point across, the dim quarter-awareness (less in the content than in the tone) of the bourgeois boy raised to believe that he has things to say that, in fact, he has nothing at all in his mind that’s worth the breath coming out his lungs, not that that’s going to stop him. That combination is as ordinary as grass, and has a banal origin: we didn’t tax his parents enough to force him to work for a living. Just another thing for us to fix- stick it on the list. ‘
Robert Evans, “After the Revolution” (2021) – Robert Evans hosts a bunch of podcasts! That’s close to all I know about him. A lot of people I know like his podcasts. I vaguely know some people who dislike him because he works for Bellingcat, which produces a lot of Russiagate paranoia, but it doesn’t seem he works that beat. I don’t listen to many podcasts these days but I heard somewhere he wrote a sci-fi novel about America after it fractures in a civil war. Evans also worked as a conflict journalist in places like Syria so I thought it’d be worth looking into, especially as he distributes it as a free ebook.
It’s the 2070s! The US broke up decades before. Most of the action takes place in Texas, which became a sort of weak libertarian republic, and basically allowed factions both right and left to control parts of its territory. There are three viewpoint characters. Manny is an Austin-based “fixer” for journalists from abroad looking to report on the wars in North Texas between Christian militants and the forces of the Republic and leftist militias. Sasha is a high school girl in the “AmFed,” the American rump state in the northeast, who runs away to join the Kingdom of Heaven, the “neo-Calvinist” (autocorrect wants to say “bro-Calvinist” and there’s some truth to that) ISIS-analogue growing on the plains. And then there’s Roland, a radically biologically modified former supersoldier missing large chunks of his memory who gets bribed into a “one last job” by an old friend. They all get embroiled in a surprise offensive that the Kingdom launches that threatens to overrun Texas.
One of Evans’ many podcasts is called something like “It Can Happen Here,” about the possibility of a civil war in the US, and my understanding is that it basically layers his experience doing conflict journalism onto American conditions. That’s more or less what you get here too. Sasha, for instance, is pretty straightforwardly a white American Christian skin for the sort of young people who got radicalized online and ran off to join ISIS in the 2010s. The Kingdom is ISIS, there’s an equivalent of the Syrian Democratic Forces defending Austin (without, interestingly, as much of the ethnic angle, though there’s more people of color there than among the Kingdom), there’s the “Christian states” in the South kinda-sorta supporting the Kingdom kind of like Saudi, the Emirates, Turkey etc supporting Islamist militias against Assad (paranoiacs who insist that Evans is a NATO pawn will presumably think he soft-pedals that angle here for Reasons), etc etc.
Evans makes the good choice to not linger too much on worldbuilding, and where he does, it’s on something stranger (more anon). Mostly he does action, and he’s a decent enough action writer, not one of the greats but this is a respectable first try. His extrapolations on technology — the key importance of drones, some bio-modification stuff I’m not sure I “buy” but which is fun — work pretty well and aren’t overplayed. The Kingdom is mounting an offensive based on a new technological exploit- I’m normally not into that as a plot point in scifi but it works here, as Evans depicts the Kingdom as first and foremost opportunistic, an infection exploiting weaknesses, from the corruption and pointlessness of life in Texas and the AmFed to technological flaws, half-consciously, and we’ve seen that everywhere in the twenty-first century from the altright (remember them?) to… well, mostly other right-wing formations… Manny at first wants to make enough money to escape to Europe, but gets waylaid by the offensive. Sasha gets smuggled into the Kingdom, likes it at first, then finds herself in an arranged polygamous marriage with a rapey douchebag.
This leads us to Roland, the post-humans, and the strange role Evans gives them. It’s worth noting that along with contemporary wars and ideological madness, Evans also writes a lot about drugs from a participant-observer perspective- the post-McInnes Vice magazine mix. As far as I can make out, post-humanism in this world originates with the US military, who “chrome up” soldiers with nanotech, gene modification, internal computers, etc etc. It’s all more organic than Terminators — think blood nanobots rebuilding shot-up tissue rather than “liquid metal” — but Roland’s powers meet or exceed many of those of your T1000s. But these ain’t your granddaddy’s robotic, mission-oriented cyborgs! Their extreme abilities also come with extreme desires for extreme experience. The history comes in bits and pieces, but it seems that Uncle Sam’s cyborgs, after being used for numerous war crimes in the 2020s, go rogue and try to take down the state in a vaguely anarchist direction! Things get fucked, they lose, many of the post-American states pass strict regulations on bio-modification (the Kingdom renounces all of it but does some creepy backdoor nonsense with it), and so the post-humans mostly retreat to the abandoned, climate-ravaged deserts, mountains, and plains of the continent.
It’s too much to say they “save the day,” but a major player in the story, the thing that stops it from being a tale of Protestant ISIS ravaging Texas, is the post-human nomad city of Rolling Fuck. Rolling Fuck is basically Burning Man as Burning Man would like to imagine itself. They wander the plains, having crazy sex, drug, and danger experiences enabled by their demigod-like powers (I don’t like the way people call superheros gods these days- I get it’s meant to refer to pre-Christian gods but we are all products of monotheism and I’m sorry, if you’re not omnipresent, you aren’t like god as we know Him). They stay out of politics. But then the Kingdom makes the dumb move of jacking some of their people. At first, they try to send Roland and Manny in to sneak them out. That goes south, so Rolling Fuck goes to war.
Like I said, the action and plotting are decent, especially for a first time novelist. It is… “trauma informed,” and I’m curious to see how that will play out as trauma-thinking wends its way further into the popular consciousness. Knowledge costs- Manny knows war-torn Texas at his expense, Sasha learns fundamentalism is Bad at her expense (not as harsh as it could have been- Evans knows the boundaries of what his public will accept, probably for the better), and no one pays more than Roland, for learning what it’s like to be post-human and having post-human experiences, being a walking hub of history’s wheel. Even where Evans doesn’t make Roland’s prior experiences clear, there’s just a constant fusillade of self- and other-inflicted bodily abuse, just constantly taking tons of drugs and also getting shot all the time.
Knowledge costs, it’s traumatic, but it also makes you human, or post-human. Not just on its own- it can make you sneaky, like Roland’s ex-handler, or subhuman, Sasha’s bro-Calvinist boyfriend. It needs proper management, “technologies of the self” if you will- Rolling Fuck’s drug and sex experiments, and its war ritual of sending little drones to collect the information of the people it slaughters and playing their little social media videos for the civilians back on the truck. Arguably, the implied values and worldview behind this is as interesting as the post-civil-war stuff, for its leaps and its gaps both. It’s a flexible view of humanity, more flexible than the “standard” current view, but I wonder at its bending and breaking points, particularly the idea of what seems to be a universal idea of trauma… but anyway. All in all this was pretty good, especially for a free ebook by a podcaster. ****