Caítlin Kiernan, Tinfoil Dossier books (2017-2020) – Horror! When it comes right down to it, a lot of the things that a lot of my friends like — not just like, define their lives by — are things I don’t like or, more often, that passed me by like a ship in the night. One of those things is horror. First, I was scared. Then, after years of reading about war, I was indifferent. I felt superior to those intrigued by — it was sometimes right to say “fans of” — mere serial killers. Their body counts were nothing next to what goes on in war, and their tedious psychological contexts always seemed dull next to what goes into war. Eventually, as my differences from others came to take on a somewhat less overweening position in my sense of self, I came to understand what my friends saw in horror movies and fiction, or at least to listen to them more. And some of them have been good enough to listen to me. In some respects, we draw similar things out of our respective generative uglinesses.
So I didn’t turn away when I started hearing about Caítlin Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. Among other recommendations, it combined what they like — horror, specifically material drawn from the Cthulhu mythos and The X-Files — and something closer to what I like: investigations, conspiracies. Cult stuff is one place where the horror kids interests and mine connect productively (not unlike antifascism as a bond between me and that other group I was always around but one of, the punks). The Tinfoil Dossier is a series of three short novels about rival conspiracies. From what one can tell, some seek to preserve the world against threats from outside of the knowable parts of space-time, some seek to hasten the end those threats can bring to human existence, others pursue obscurer ends.
I say “as far as I can tell” because Kiernan does not usually condescend to clarify. Sometimes, that frustrates me in writing, but Kiernan has the writing chops (one key- she doesn’t drag shit out, a little confusion goes a long way!) to carry it off with aplomb. You’re seldom sure who works for whom. The closest thing to a stable pole in her world is Albany (named after the city in which they’re inexplicably, but compellingly, based), the super secret Men in Black style organization that tries to prevent the end of the world and usually only just barely succeeds. Albany people, sometimes called “Agents of Dreamland,” go back and forth across the world trying to keep cultists and whackos, often with weird creepy powers, from completely destroying the world by summoning Cthulhu or implanting those zombie mushrooms in everyone or sinking the world to commune with dark sea god Dagon, on and on.
Unlike Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, agents like The Signalman (named after his large silver pocket watch) do not, in fact, make this look good. Albany routinely manipulate what few people with “special talents” that they can find who aren’t already spoken for by an Elder God to work for them, often using blackmail, brainwashing, or addiction. And even with abilities like being able to summon “the Hound of Tindalos,” a post-Lovecraft addition to the mythos that’s a sort of messed-up energy being that comes out of angular space and turns you into blue goo, they still mess it up a lot. Terrible stuff happens to them, all the time. And they’re not even dealing with Illuminati-style organized conspiracies! Just, like, small generational cults of fishy Welsh women who, admittedly, can do some fucked up magic. Kiernan writes a good action set piece, along with the other fun aspects of her writing. My favorite is when one of the Welsh ladies summons dark cold ocean water into a private jet going over a desert. That was freaky!
Kiernan tells the stories a-chronologically. Bits and pieces of the past, near-present, and future blob in and out of the narrative according to their own logic. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything major when I say, Elder Gods or not, humanity is still fucked. The waters rise, with or without Dagon, even if the human story goes on, unpleasantly human, to the Lovecraft cultists of the world. These were fun! I will read more horror, or anyway, put horror stuff in my rotation as I have been. ****’
Alexander Dugin, “The Fourth Political Theory” (2009) (translated from the Russian by, like, a dozen people, who cares) – Let’s get one thing straight from the start: Vladimir Putin needs a ponderous ex-punk ex-dissident “Traditionalist” to tell him to be a prick and invade places like he needs a hot shovel. A few years back, around the time of the Trump election, US media started noticing Alexander Dugin, and some floated the idea he was “Putin’s Brain.” This is typical American provincialism, applying our situation — in this case, an extremely narrow scenario, the fact that we had a president for eight years who was so stupid that people like Karl Rove and Paul Wolfowitz had to do his thinking for him — blithely to very different arrangements abroad. I’m no Russia expert, but it seems supremely unlikely that the ex-KGB siloviki and the gangster oligarchs that run the show over there really care that much about what any philosopher says. Things do have a tendency to get stupider and stupider in this timeline, so maybe more Russians who count are actually listening to people like Dugin. One thing this Ukraine situation has shown us is that the delusion some of us anti-imperialist leftists held, that powers like Russia, cruel though they may be, are at least smarter and more rational than the US, doesn’t hold up as well as we’d like, so that would fit. I’m aware that Russian state media has some kind of employment situation going with Dugin. It’s the job of major state cultural/intellectual apparatus to keep a variety of pedants and ideologues on staff in case they’re handy. We’re cheap. That doesn’t mean people like him (or me, lol) really decide anything.
Dugin has been on my radar for a long time. I had actually planned on running him in the election he swept for my next “reading on the right” well before the Ukraine crisis. If you read about contemporary fascism, traditionalism, or red-brown cross-over, his name comes up a lot. This, along with his association with Russia, a country that brings out the bullshit in Anglo-American writers, means there’s a lot of dumb agendas not so much surrounding Dugin, as much as surrounding the discourse around the topics that Dugin bridges. You can find waltzing pairs of bullshit slingers along every axis touching the man: those who think he’s Putin’s brain versus those who know he isn’t; those who sound the alarm on red-brown (that’s alliances between anticapitalist leftists and fascist right-wingers, for the uninitiated) coalitions versus those who insist any mention of that is crying wolf; those who want to defend the honor of the sort of occultism/traditionalism Dugin claims versus those who think it’s all fashy rot. I do think there are rights and wrongs, here. I also think that many involved on all sides over-generalize and press their arguments further than they will go, seemingly out of spite a lot of the time.
So, let’s go to the texts, shall we? I mean the text of Dugin’s writing, and the text of his life, most of which might as well be his writings because he’s the main source of information here. The story we’re told is that Dugin came from a family reasonably high-up in the Soviet hierarchy- his dad was a general. Dugin was a rebel- maybe this is just crossing the streams of things I’ve been thinking about recently, but he does seem a bit like a classic early-Gen-X type, a rebel of the kind that valued posturing and shock over anything else (the Soviet context was different enough from the Western to seriously complicate that read, I know). He got into rock music, satanism and other aspects of the occult, and Hitler. Supposedly, he found some Julius Evola in the Lenin Library in Moscow and that was all she wrote- he was now a Radical Traditionalist. I can basically rattle off my spiel explaining what Traditionalism is (and isn’t) from memory, since my 2018 birthday lecture, in my opinion my best one. I’m sick of doing it. Just know that when guys like Dugin say tradition, they mean initiatory occult knowledge, and know that like any magician, they rely on misprision and slips to get over with audiences. This includes the verbal slip between Tradition like they mean it and tradition like we mean it, the actual traditions of actual people.
The biggest gap I see in Dugin’s biography is that between the fall of the Soviet Union and about 1997, when he wrote his book on “geopolitics.” That’s the book that got the west’s attention, after it was adopted by the Russian military colleges as a textbook. Where did he make enough money to sit around, write, and get involved with Eduard Limonov’s Nationalist Bolsheviks? The legacy of Limonov — people whose opinions I take seriously say he was a great writer, and I intend on reading him some day — and the NatBols motivates a lot of the bullshit slinging in this story. Here, I’m more interested in the context. The Soviet Union collapsed, the economy went into freefall, everyone was scrambling, and I wonder where Dugin (and to a lesser extent Limonov and other NatBols) found material support… really, more for my own picture than because I think such support would necessarily translate into allegiance. Nice complete picture, that’s what I’m about.
Anyway- Dugin’s thoughts on geopolitics got people’s attention. If there is any parallel between Dugin and the neocons as implied by the “Putin’s brain” thesis, it is this: both were late twentieth century ideological entrepreneurs shilling some Risk-board nonsense to fill the hole where people like them thought a sense of national mission should be. They’re both parodies of an already degraded form of thought, the two classical schools of International Relations theory. Neoconservatism is a hyper-charged, violent Liberal Internationalism; Dugin’s Eurasianism, where he calls for Russia (and maybe China, if they’re on side) to lead a solid bloc in, you guessed it, Eurasia, is a parody of foreign policy Realism.
Dugin, for his part, follows in the long… well, post-1945 long… tradition of fascist pedants magpie-picking from amongst the few fash left standing after the big blowout for ideological inspiration. The unlettered skinhead mooks did Hitler-manquery; the ones with that critical bit of grey matter go looking for somehow who didn’t shit the bed and die in 1945. That’s how Evola got a postwar rep- he was still alive, because nobody trusted him with anything important. That’s why you still see Strasserites, despite Strasser being as scabrously anti-semitic as the Fuhrer who offed him, because he, being dead, wasn’t so thoroughly associated with ignominous defeat. Figures like Mosely and Yawkey were, ironically, protected by the rules of liberal democracies, and they have their little followings. Dugin is an Evola disciple but for his geopolitics, he borrows heavily from Karl Haushofer, a German practitioner of the school of “geopolitics” that came about in the early twentieth century. Like a lot of haut-bourgeois thought, geopolitics is a way of thinking about something real — the way geography influences, sometimes determines, politics — without taking most of the realities on board. Geopolitics is high-flown, if taken seriously it’s high stakes, and just bullshit enough for someone to be able to say anything at all they want under its auspices (dialectics has sometimes played a similar role, if you think I can’t pick on Marxists too!). It’s perfect for an ideological hustler like Dugin.
Because that’s what the Fourth Political Theory is- a hustle. Dugin, above all else, is a performer. Take a look at his videos. Big old gray beard, English pronunciation and cadences somewhere between Zizek and a Bond villain. I could, potentially, see his geopolitical and “Eurasianist” stuff having something closer to meaningful content (that’s saying a lot, for a field and an ideology I hold in low regard). But what you see in this, his effort to encapsulate his broader political ideas, is a transparent snow job resting on sleight of arthritic hand.
Dugin’s theory is the Fourth theory, you see, because there were already three: Liberalism, Communism, and Fascism. Fourth theory is none of the above, he’ll have you know, regardless of how Fascist it looks (or its fond words for the worst parts of the Communist legacy)! The three previous theories were all modern, in that they believed in progress. The Fourth theory is both pre- AND post-modern, and doesn’t! But it still partakes of a dialectic, because Liberalism’s victory ushered in postmodernism, which the Fourth theory would take advantage of to be Liberalism’s eventual gravedigger. Fourth theory is related to conservatism, Dugin tells us, especially traditionalism, your Evolas and your De Maistres (the latter not a formal Traditionalist but a believer in similar ideas). But it’s smarter, cooler, newer.
Here’s a good tell: Dugin claims to have made a workable politics out of the thought of Heidegger. I’m actually of two minds about this. On the one hand, I actually rather appreciate the cheek of someone willing to take this awful wizard-gnome and his pronouncements as something so mundane as a political program. No seminar table intimidation for old Doogs! On the other, even I know claiming to wield “dasein” like a fucking… ruler, or wrench, or pointer, is definitely not what the old fucker had in mind and points to the larger incoherence of the whole project. The whole point of Heidegger is to be anti-programmatic. Dugin says he is too- he, like his co-thinker and fellow half-smart Eurotrash Guillaume Faye, insists he is ultimately a radical pragmatist, concerned with what works. Then goes on to make a program of it. To affirm a programmatic — which is not to say well-considered — list of goals, most of which conform to what his idea of what a Russian meathead wants out of life: more power for Russia, no gay pride parades, etc.
You see the same thing with his definition of postmodern… and of most other things. More than anything I’ve read in theory, or heard from a professor, what the whole thing reminds me of is the calvinball discursive games assorted half-read kids (invariably boys) have tried to get me to play with them. “How do we know X ACTUALLY isn’t Y??” And, invariably, you could see what they were driving at. At the very least, they were trying to get social points over you, prove you wrong or insufficiently broad-minded somehow. Usually, they had some bigger point, at least bolstering some kind of ethos. Dugin is doing the same thing. He wants something just as slippery and open-ended as any college sophomore philosophy major. It’s just more violent (he soft-sells the violence and racism, but given how prominent a place “ethnocentrism” plays in his system…).
Ultimately, stupid and pointless though this book was, it was a reasonably smart read to undertake. Coming in 2009, this is a pretty good sample of the kind of competitive scrabbling for position you saw various far-right ideological entrepreneurs engage in as it became good and clear that the End of History was ending. Dugin had some advantages and some disadvantages, and they tended to run along parallel lines. He’s clearly better-read than a lot of his rivals and co-thinkers. Richard Spencer always came off like a grad student who didn’t do the reading and was trying to get by in colloquium with bluster; Dugin did some of the reading but “realized” no one cared, it’s all just symbols and branding anyway. But, he’s also Russian, and so has a more limited audience… but, he’s Russian, so has a smaller pond to try to dominate. I kind of thought I’d rate this one higher, but the book gets repetitive and his act gets old. When I came to give a “bullshit” tag in my shelving system, I couldn’t actually make myself call it “fascist bullshit.” It is that. But more than that, it’s “post-bullshit,” my category for books that take the category confusions and other lacunae of theory to smuggle nonsense and, often enough, the lies of the powerful into print. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dugin’s patrons in the Russian ruling class reach more for ideological explanations ala this book as the Ukraine situation sucks more and more, for them and for the world. I’m not looking forward to it. *’
Hari Kunzru, “Red Pill” (2020) (narrated by the author) – Well, well! This one inspired many thoughts and feelings in me. More of them, written down, are derogatory-sounding than this book deserves. In that respect it reminds me of another, somewhat similar book, Ben Lerner’s “The Topeka School.” Maybe I don’t have it in me to straightforwardly praise contemporary literary fiction (maybe I just don’t have practice!). In particular, anything that treads the waters of “what the fuck is happening/rise of fascism” is going to bring up a lot of weird stuff for most anyone who reads them, especially if they don’t follow some predictable line (“love wins”).
I thought, maybe four fifths through listening to this book, that maybe Kunzru was verging towards a predictable line, after all. But I guess I should say what happens in this book a little before going into that! We’ve got an unnamed narrator, a South Asian British man living in Brooklyn, early middle age, wife and kid, a freelance writer of cultural criticism, maybe a cut above the NPR type, call it the N+1 type, and let’s go ahead and call our narrator “Hari.” Hari is feeling weltschmerz but wins a fellowship to do some study in Germany. Off he goes, promising his wife that he’ll return with a book manuscript on “the poetic I” and a head free of angst.
Well, naturally, the fellowship is not all it seems. It was founded by some ex-Wehrmacht Christian Democrat industrialist with funny ideas, that entail Hari having to do a bunch of shit he’d rather not: work in an open plan office and eat meals with fellow fellows, most notably an obnoxious evopsych professor. I gotta say, it’s pretty funny that Hari’s nightmare is basically what office workers like me take for granted: a cubicle, supervision, meals eaten with people not your choosing (I will say my employer isn’t so bad about the latter). Does Kunzru get that? Probably, though whether he “groks” it…
Anyway! Things get increasingly sinister. Among other things, the fellowship center is smack in the middle of the Berlin neighborhood of Wannsee. Wannsee, of course, is best known for the Wannsee Conference, called by Reinhard Heydrich to plan the logistics of the “final solution.” It was also a sort of fashionable vacation spot (back then, any crappy old lake — like the “see” in Wannsee — a short-ish distance from a city was a destination) for romantic poets like Heinrich von Kleist, a spicy type Hari is studying for his project. Von Kleist shot a lady friend and then himself around the lake. Bad vibes! Hari walks around and around the lake. It’s winter in Berlin. His book isn’t getting anywhere.
Where can Hari take refuge other than in streaming TV? He obsessively watches a cop show — I imagine it being a lot like “The Shield” except maybe with Dolph Lundgren in the main role — marked by extreme violence and occasional apostrophes to the viewership in the form of speeches Hari realizes are drawn from reactionary philosophers of the past: Emil Cioran, Joseph de Maistre, the like. It’s all stuff about how life is a pointless bloodbath, etc etc.
Things really take a turn, as they so often do, when the internet goes down. Hari tries to get it fixed but the IT guy is probably in the altright and they’re probably also watching all the fellows when they sleep (or is Hari having a breakdown?). Plus also those dang German ordoliberals with their ironclad fellowship contract are probably cutting off his internet because they can see he’s not doing enough work! Fuck!! He’s gotta get to the bottom of this!
Hari does not for a good gentleman detective make. He tries to get one of the cleaning ladies to tell him stuff. She tells him a long story about how she was a punk in East Germany, was stalked and mind-fucked by a stasi officer into being an informant on the scene, and also had a very shitty post-reunification life, as did most of the people involved in her story. All that, and she doesn’t drop any useful hints! She just gets mad at Hari! Can it get any worse?
A cool black gay guy at the fellowship invites Hari out to a charity gala for refugees and things can, indeed, get worse. Hari, disgusted by the money and obviously fake concern on display, tries to help out a refugee and his daughter who he sees on the street and botches the approach. He goes back to the gala and meets Anton, the dude who makes the cop show, and asks him about all the weird quotes.
Insofar as all the dread Kunzru builds up has a payoff, it is in the antagonism between Hari and Anton. Anton is a Nazi, or anyway, a nihilist who sees that the premises of Nazism and reactionary ideology more generally is the way towards his preferred social order- the strong ruling over the weak, and getting to caper and shout and be worshipped while doing so (you get the impression, in this book and elsewhere, that it’s the capering these people really want, and I guess a redefinition of “strength” and the ruling privileges that go with it towards parameters more amenable to themselves). And — and here it’s worth noting that while this book was published in 2020, it takes place in 2015 and 2016, the lead up to Trump’s win in the election — he owns Hari pretty good. Invites him out with his Nazi pals, makes fun of him, doesn’t leave many holes that someone of Hari’s intellectual background can exploit (I saw plenty — he’s a precious little fellow, Anton, with his undercut and his elaborate joke of going to a kebab place and not eating, and anything precious is delicate — but of course my circumstances are different). Then Anton and a Nazi friend show up at the fellowship center, do some Nazi troll shit, and get Hari booted!
The dynamic, here, is that Hari is the sort of ineffectual left-leaning intellectual, pondering poetry in abstruse little journals, that right-wing man’s men who don’t care about anything, man, can walk right over. Well- that is, certainly, a thing in the world! One of the feelings I felt while reading this is a familiar one I’ve never put a name to (perhaps the Germans have a word). It’s a feeling of almost seeing my perspective in someone else, or my circumstances, but also missing it by a mile. I’m a leftist intellectual worried about a rising tide of reactionary violence as crises converge. But like… I also don’t fetishize my own helplessness, as Hari does, as a fair few leftists and liberals I know have, and do. I don’t “forget about” fascists, the way “sensible” liberals and moderates would have me do- there, Hari and I agree. But my version of living my values entails being able to do something about them in the world, as best one can.
The world — the pre-1945 world, the world of the Cold War, the prefiguring of the crises of the 21st century that the altright represents — crashes in on Hari, in a personal and offensive way. To Kunzru’s credit, he does not linger long on the Brooklyn world that tears like tissue paper once Hari is expected to work under normal circumstances and then meets a troll. He doesn’t wallow in its fecklessness, just let’s a few features — Hari’s wife’s work for the Hillary Clinton campaign, a few cultural markers, mostly Hari’s utter inability to cope — do the work for him. Interestingly, he doesn’t altogether crumble in the face of the world… or, well, maybe he does. In all likelihood he has a paranoid break with reality. He becomes obsessed with Anton, stalks his online circle (how many of which are just Anton-bots, replicating his posts?), and basically comes to conceive, saying outright at least once, that Anton is the Moriarty to Hari’s Holmes. He thinks Anton leaves breadcrumb clues to find Anton on an island off the coast of Scotland. Hari acts weird there, with a knife, and gets arrested. His wife and brother find him, put him on a plane back home, have him committed for a while, and then he returns home to a tentative, painful peace. Then Trump gets elected!
When I say that Hari doesn’t completely come undone, I mean that at least he does something. He doesn’t do something smart. But given that the failure mode that defined his existence so far was inaction, going to confront the symbol he created for the dread he felt — a dread I hold he is right to feel — seems… like a step in the right direction? I don’t know, isn’t facing fear a good thing?
And that’s what I mean when I say, way back in the second paragraph of this review, that Kunzru seemed to veer towards a conventional conclusion about the conflicts that characterize our time. He doesn’t do a “love overcomes” thing. He comes close to doing a “paying attention and trying to fight emerging fascism will drive you mad, so, don’t” thing. As it happens, I think the last fifth or so of the book, where Trump wins the election and it becomes clear that the forces of conventional liberal reasoning — mostly represented by women who call Hari crazy, like his wife and his psychiatrist — can’t keep the wolf from the door, takes us away from this conclusion. Maybe it’s just me being politically happy with that, but I do think it shows some artistry on Kunzru’s part. Of course, a Brooklyn intellectual, confronted (away from home and what community he has and in a bad way emotionally) with fascism, would do some dumb bullshit like construe that the fascist set an elaborate online trap for him, and try to confront the fascist, in the trap, like a dumb movie. Hari’s subject is literally “the poetic I!” Individualism is his whole thing.
It’s not a just so story- Hari doesn’t, say, join any kind of community defense effort or something, which he dismisses with lines like “I was learning poetry when I should have (he doesn’t actually mean this) learned to field strip an AR-15” etc. He’s not any better off for his brush with fascism. That reads true, as well, and in keeping with the general sense of contemporary dread that Kunzru shares with Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, and, well, the news and the internet. Nobody learns anything. Nobody’s capable of learning anything, and it’s too late if they are.
Kunzru deserves to be in Bolaño’s company, and that of the early, compelling Houellebecq, in terms of crafting an intelligent, readable narrative that rings true to our times. It is a compelling listen/read. I’d even say Hari is “Berard Complete” – he feels real without being tediously fleshed out, or anyway, more than a first-person narrator of his kind would flesh himself out in the course of telling a harrowing personal tale. I guess, at some point, I would like a story, one that isn’t about superheroes or people who might as well be, who see that fighting people who would oppress you, while not easy on the soul, is possible, sometimes necessary, and maybe not even a road to automatic emotional ruin and distance from your loved ones. Just for variety! I understand it doesn’t make sense to ding an author for the story they didn’t write, and this book certainly held my interest and inspired respect for its craft more than most recent literary books do. So, I won’t ding it that half star I was considering for my horror movie fan-style frustration with the Haris of the world, yelling at the book, “just punch him, you asshole! It worked on Richard Spencer!” *****
François-René de Chateaubriand, “The Genius of Christianity” (1801) (translated from the French by Charles White) – This is, arguably, one of my “less essential” readings on the right. No one’s going around making Chateaubriand memes these days. But I had heard of him, and knew he was important at one point, and I’m going to have to get to grips with the whole religious-conservative thing one of these days. Classic me, I jump to this instead of just choking down some Rushdoony, or better yet, just YouTubing megachurch seminars or something… like trying to figure out the “altright” from essays and novels instead of memes and YouTube comments…
Anyway! I do think this was educational and worth reading. Chateaubriand came from an aristocratic family that escaped the guillotine. Young Franky-Rennie took the obligatory Enlightenment-leaning young aristo trip to the nascent United States to see what the noble savages were up to. At one point, the two epic poems he wrote inspired by having a look at the deep woods from out of his carriage were included in “The Genius of Christianity,” but the fussy American (one suspects Irish-) Catholic editors of this English translation decided to leave those out of the translation I read.
Either way, between the revolution and whatever else, Chateaubriand left the Enlightenment behind and embraced the Catholicism of his birth. Being young, inspired, and something of a hustler, he saw what a lot of his peers failed to see- you gotta propagandize. The old church really didn’t, not in Europe anyway, not after the wars of religion burned out over a century before. They were around and hegemonic and had been for a long time. What did they need clever essays in vernacular languages for? “To counter Voltaire and co,” Chateaubriand would say. It probably all seems a little pointless now, but this was then. You needed that little slice of the population that read clever essays, or anyway, enough of them to make the machines of modernizing society work.
The main thing about Chateaubriand is he’s not too clever. There were other, cleverer lights on the emerging anti-revolutionary right circa the turn of the nineteenth century. Many of them, including the brilliant and sinister Joseph de Maistre, also defended mother church. But Maistre, with his rhapsodies for the hangman as the holy spirit in the earthly trilogy of throne, altar, and gallows, is not for mass consumption, even educated mass consumption. Chateaubriand was no theologian (though he read, or at least skimmed, many), no Jesuit logician. What Chateaubriand seems to have been was a bridge figure between the French counter-enlightenment, Catholicism, and romanticism. A three way bridge, like the Triboro!
So Chateaubriand barely concerns himself with proving Christianity true. He mostly talks about it as beautiful, mysterious, and of course he doesn’t use the word but comes close to the concept, cool. Atheism and deism are for nerds, Catholicism has rad buildings, historicity, etc. He provides the sort of skein of rationale that a literate audience that doesn’t want to think of itself as stupid, but still wants to believe whatever it wants uncritically, like to have, and then gets on with the business of talking about how beautiful and life-affirming the whole Christian deal is. You might think “hey, that sounds like tradcaths!” Meaning online reactionary Catholic converts. Sure- they’re definitely more in it for the aesthetic than anything else. But Chateaubriand, while he gets his licks in at the lumieres, isn’t as resentful and scared as they are (is anyone?). If anything, the whole thing reminded me more of people closer to the left that I know, who agree with Chateaubriand that Catholicism is pretty and that maybe something is missing in their lives without it, or some equivalent. Chateaubriand hadn’t really figured out the irony-kitsch thing, but, hey, progress matches on, I suppose. ***
Mark McGurl, “The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing” (2009) – The short story workshop! For a certain kind of liberal arts student, no setting conjures up quite that same combination of dread and hope. One such class was the only literature or writing class I took in college. It was my second semester, freshman year. I scribbled some stupid high-concept alternate history nonsense, then a twee family thing. Some other people did some ok stuff. I don’t remember if anyone was particularly nasty. The teacher was a decent sort (he might be reading this!) who seemed to genuinely believe in the type of stories that come out in those “best American short story” books- not that he liked all of them uncritically, just that he believed in the project.
I hadn’t formed an opinion on the project, but I would. I learned literature, to the extent that I have, because I was learning history. I’d say I did it on my own, but that’s not quite right. I did it by the light of a few constellations: sometimes friends and family, but most often, publications like the old Baffler and the Exile. Their style of criticism – erudite but irreverent, aiming to wound and not just to act as an adjunct to the publishing industry – spoke to something in my young-adult soul. I gobbled up their archives, and worked on learning literature along two tracks: their recommendations (and sometimes, their denunciations), and “the canon.” Test and control. Taking this task seriously meant honest, rigorous engagement not just with the works, but with myself, the critics, the world around me. It’s a test, given the many ways all of us can – I think all of us do, however temporarily – decide to lay down in the snow and nap, faced with the blizzard of bullshit and easy outs that surrounds critical discourse, at any time but it feels especially totally now.
Woof! This took a turn. The point is- all of my teachers after that nice fellow in Dalrymple (who may or may not be reading this- hello if you are!) despise the project of the contemporary establishment literary short story of the kind published in the “best of” series. Most of them despise it hard enough to have developed critical frameworks that also condemn most official alternatives to said establishment- these have a way of getting folded in, after all. Moreover, most of the people I’ve met post-undergrad who participate in literature in any way are also deeply skeptical of the entire literary enterprise as it currently exists. Some have fled for the Croatoan of alternative literature of various kinds, and seem to be doing ok out there. Others keep “playing the game” as best they can, compelled by a love for the act of writing and reading and trying their best to “keep the faith” (and ironic distance). All of them are at the least ironic about contemporary Anglophone literature, and most of them are strongly critical of how it is produced: the publisher, the pitch, the agent, the query, the review, the blog, the tweet, the MFA, and above all, the workshop.
The workshop has become symbolic for much of what is wrong with contemporary American fiction. Somehow managing to manifest both a gummy sort of Disney-populism (“anyone can write!!”) alongside tacky elitism (“for a price!!”), grad-school pretense and high-school social dynamics, the workshop is widely considered unpleasant to participate in, not notably good at improving people’s writing, deleterious to the quality of American letters, and also a scam. And it’s hard to disagree, really. Look at the state of American literature, and of English language literature in general. It’s really not great! And a lot of the problems do feel pretty “workshop” – self-indulgence, predictability, stylistic conformity. I’ve said so- so have numerous literary friends with many more workshops under their belt than mine (and more to come!). And I mean… a dozen-odd people, mostly kids, who want to be writers, posturing and passive-aggressively sniping at each other, ridden herd by some poor son of a bitch who believes in literature? Woof!
So! Whomst amongst us would defend the workshop, or anyway, the workshop’s centrality to the production of contemporary American literary fiction? It’s too much to say that literary historian and critic Mark McGurl defends the workshop, or the MFA programs that use the workshop as their basis. But he does complicate our critiques – which are borderline received wisdom in critical circles – in the process of illuminating the contours of post-WWII American literary history.
McGurl begins with that would have seemed – what did seem – like a paradox: programmed creativity, especially in a university setting. The hierophants of literary modernism, especially the Americans, mostly fled universities, which they considered (rightly) to be strongholds of hidebound literary traditionalism. Hemingway hated school; Faulkner spent more time on Hollywood studio lots than in a classroom; everyone who could fled not just American schoolrooms, but America, for Paris. Paris, London, New York- that was the “school” for modernist writers.
In discussing the history of the writing program, McGurl takes the fiendishly simple step of wondering why the critiques so common to us of program writing would not have occurred to the people who created these programs. More than asking a probing question of the past, McGurl’s move here is a showing up of the anti-program cliches we live with. In other words- it’s not that profound to figure out that critiques like “creativity can’t be taught” would have occurred to Wallace Stegner and other godfathers of the creative writing program, but it is an interesting lacuna that people go on making that criticism as though their interlocutors hadn’t heard it. In many ways, us critics of the writing program have taken its existence, and our antinomy to it, for granted, like it’s always been there, even though the implied teleology of it all – once, there were writers, then the MFA came along to corral them into conformity – implies a “before.”
In short, McGurl is a historicizer, an erudite and witty one, operating in a field that neither its proponents in literature nor critics like me on the outs have really put in its context. He’s got something like a fresh field, and he makes the most of it. As it turns out, very, very few literary writers, even those nursed in its gardens, have unambiguously good feelings about writing programs. The people who founded them, often in a fit of Dewey-an enthusiasm and thinking it would be a good way for returning WWII vets to “process their feelings” and maybe get a start at writing, weren’t sure they would work, and often proved ambiguous about their product. One such was Wallace Stegner, who carried on a long feud with his writing workshop protege, Ken Kesey. Kesey, you’d figure, would be a big critic of programmatic creativity, and he was- but McGurl points to many ways in which the “Magic Bus” experience comes closer to the workshop than anyone would like to admit. Famous writers who supplemented their incomes with workshop money (Roth, Vonnegut), others who got their start with workshops (Momaday, Cisneros), long-time critics (Reed), all of them had careers and writings that defy simple schematization.
This is ultimately because, in McGurl’s take, the writing program is more than just a way of producing literature that one can agree or disagree with, accept or refuse. It is an institution in, around, outside, against, parallel to, perpendicular to, orthogonal to, running screaming away from, has helped define American literature in its period because the concerns with which that literature dealt found echoes in its structures and practices… and vice-versa. McGurl tracks a dozen or more currents or movements within the literature of the time pertaining to “the program,” one way or another, all of them his own invention, at least retooling well-known critical concepts if not making them up himself. Questions of race, class, gender, the role of the writer in public life, the Cold War, capitalism, and more don’t just get isolated chapters like they do in a lot of cultural histories- they are all woven together into a single strand. More than a history of literature (which it is a fantastic example of), “The Program Era” stands as an example of a truly holistic history, a work that understands that protagonists, antagonists, and the entire ecosystem of other actors exist inseparably from each other in any given historical form- absent one, and the form is not that form, but another (systems theory is one of McGurl’s inspirations here). It’s a real bravura performance, and I took my time with it, not just because I was busy but because I was really enjoying it.
McGurl is probably somewhat more sanguine about American literary fiction of the postwar period (and ours- we are, indeed, post-WWII, but are we still “postwar”?), and the possibilities of the writing program. He doesn’t really take on the literary fiction/genre fiction divide. It comes up but it’s not his subject. If it were… well, it would be that other form I talked about, and the picture might involve more dichotomous antagonisms – the forces that kept scifi, fantasy, crime, romance, etc. on the margins of respectability while creating this vast edifice of literary fiction that now no one knows what to do with, a white elephant from previous generations – than what McGurl wants in this project. Still and all! A fascinating and toothsome read. *****
John Keegan, “Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris” (1982) (read by Fred Williams) – Sometimes, you give some old school military history a try. I came up in prime D-Day remembrance years, and was an eight year old who loved history stories when the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion came around. My grandfather was there at Omaha Beach; the remembrance stuff, “Saving Private Ryan” and all, played an important role in getting him to talk about it, about the trauma and all. Being a weird little kid, I was always interested in the corners of the war I had heard of but which didn’t get talked about that much. I would alienate other kids at recess when they played WWII by yelling out that I was Free French or Russian or Chinese. As far as the culture around me was concerned, WWII was basically a drive from Normandy to liberating the camps to a pit stop at Hiroshima to coming home for that kiss in Times Square.
Well, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years by cocking my snoot at this mythic version of the war, and I expect to continue to do so. Quite beyond the fact that most Americans didn’t give a shit about the Holocaust and the Soviets freed the six death camps (not that their leadership were so wild about Jewish life and freedom), and that that Times Square kiss was sexual assault… It’s not news to most people reading this that the most consequential fighting of the war took place in the East between the Nazis and the Soviets (and in China, between its people and the Japanese imperialists). Put that in place, and everything looks different.
But still… there was a reason Stalin came close to begging the western allies to open a real second front in Western Europe starting in ‘42. America and Britain were blessed by geography, as they so often were: the German heartland was a lot closer to Britain than to Russia. The invasion needed to happen. Churchill’s poor strategic sense and his interest in bleeding the Soviets coincided in his decision to delay and do stuff like invade Italy, the supposed “soft underbelly” of Europe that actually had a bunch of mountain ranges and armed Nazis. I’m not enough of an expert on the troop dispositions blah blah to know whether, if the Americans had put their foot down and insisted on an invasion of France in ‘43, it would have worked as well, but it kind of seems like without the Italian diversion they could have done it… maybe the Americans needed “the experience,” it’s not like you can retreat much from an amphibious invasion…
Anyway! Donnish Sandhurst-y military historian John Keegan considered all this in the introduction to this, his breakthrough book, before getting on to which division went where. That’s not entirely fair. Keegan talks a lot about the strategic situation and the social/cultural experiences of the men who fought in Normandy and how that informed their respective military traditions, which was pretty interesting. The six armies from the title are five Allied countries — the Americans, Canadians, and British, who each had beachheads, and the Poles and the Free French, who didn’t but had a lot of troops around — and of course the Germans. He picks each one as a viewpoint for each part of the book- the Americans for the airborne assault, the Canadians for the beachheads (not Omaha Beach, interestingly), the French for the taking of Paris, etc. The Germans had a way of being everywhere, naturally, but their viewpoint thing was how bad Hitler screwed the pooch in the defense, partially, Keegan argues, because he was rattled by being bombed by his officers that time.
It’s pretty good, for what it is, but, perhaps inevitably, gets bogged down in narrations of maneuver and counter-maneuver, which is a lot less interesting when you can’t get maps or pictures (my fault for picking an audiobook, I guess). Some people really love that scale, bigger than a battle, smaller than a theatre, but I always like either the big picture or granular battle description. Keegan does get some good stuff there. I like descriptions of airborne operations. What a shitshow! Dropped into the dark over Normandy, a lot of them dying or breaking legs — drowned, which horrified me the most, sometimes — getting lost, having to round up the other troops, getting in weird random small-unit fights with the Germans… that was cool.
Here’s what I found myself wondering most often. Where was the reconnaissance in all this? Seemingly nobody had any but the foggiest idea where anybody was! It was a pretty big and confusing area, all those identification farmhouses and bocage hedge-mazes, but still. They must have had scouts, but it really doesn’t seem they emphasized scouting that much? One of the big questions the smarter analysts of contemporary military analysts ask is- who is the infantry? In a contemporary war, who is willing to do the dirty and dangerous stuff, consistently and competently, that infantry still has to do to win a war? That wasn’t that hard of a question at this period, a high point in state power and organization. Maybe the question was “who are the scouts” – who do you have that can bring you good information? I don’t know. Maybe Keegan just didn’t write about the battle-level intel game because he wasn’t interested! But yeah, this was fine, but wearing, in that way fuss-and-feathers military history can be. ***’
John le Carré, “A Murder of Quality” (1962) – A little while back I read “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” and it was outstanding, so I decided to read all of John le Carré’s Smiley novels, and maybe more of his work after that if I wasn’t sick of it by then. “The Spy Who…” was Le Carré’s third Smiley book. I read his first novel, “Call for the Dead,” a little while later, and that one was pretty good, and now I’ve filled in the gap with “A Murder of Quality” which, when you get down to it, isn’t really a spy novel but a crime novel.
George Smiley, Le Carré’s rumpled, diffident master spy, gets called in for a domestic job by one of his secretaries from the war. This secretary had gotten a job managing a Christian magazine. I assume the Anglican Church probably has a magazine, too, but I knew straightaway it would be a “chapel” magazine, that is, a publication for non-Anglican English Protestants. The secretary wrote the magazine’s advice column, and she got a creepy letter from a subscriber saying she was about to be murdered… then she was! Fuck!!
Naturally, given how weird it all is, she calls on her former boss Smiley, who hasn’t got a lot to do these days so decides to lend a hand. When you’re in the British spy biz you usually have all kinds of hoity-toity connections, and that comes in handy here. Stella, the murdered woman, was the wife of an instructor at Carne, an extremely fancy boarding school, where the brother of one of Smiley’s war friends also works, giving him an in to go investigate.
Le Carré said this novel was partially inspired by his brief time teaching at Eton. I guess he didn’t like it! He makes Cold War East Germany sound a lot more pleasant than British boarding school. While international intrigue doesn’t really figure into this whodunnit, in a way, it is more of a spy novel than a crime novel. A spy, Smile, attempts to infiltrate an alien and sinister society and manipulate its ways in order to learn its secrets. He only barely invokes the specter of the rape of minors — the main thing I think of when I think of British boarding schools — to get across how terrible it is! Mainly, everyone there seems to operate on some sick combination of self-loathing and self-love, propelled by institutional inertia and the miracle of compound interest on a foundation started four hundred years before.
I don’t want to spoil it, but what at first seemed like a murder (then murders!) based on class spite come to be based more on individual sociopathy. This was a little disappointing, truth be told. There were some decent exposition-switchbacks in the end but the real story seemed to come out of nowhere. I don’t think whodunnit was Le Carré’s thing, really. But he’s such a master of language, characterization, and pacing, it was still a respectable read, and I look forward to picking up the next Smiley. ****
Yoram Hazony, “The Virtue of Nationalism” (2018) – I should probably stop reading books on the idea that the contemporary twerp-right is reading them, all on a throwaway line in a half-remembered article in the Atlantic or the New Republic or somewhere, shouldn’t I? I doubt this Hazony guy is really hot stuff on the right, at least the part of it I should pay attention to. Whatever nonsense is in here, Hazony is too moderate, too polisci, and let’s not forget too Jewish for an increasingly bloodthirsty and openly antisemitic right. The kid name-checking him in that article probably just liked the title. I’ve seen a lot of that. You can’t tell me all these idiots on goodreads, or the morons on the other side of the line when we deal with local Nazis, have actually read Evola’s “Revolt Against the Modern World.” They just like the title, and stick with it despite Evola having written numerous books that are also fascist nonsense but are pitched more at their level. This is not a thoughtful time on the right.
Anyway- Hazony plays the usual polisci calvinball of making up whatever categories he wants and foisting them on the entirety of history to make some dumb presentist point. There’s three ways of arranging sovereignty, he informs us: “tribes and clans,” where no one has loyalty beyond an immediate in-group and it’s a war of all against all; nation-states, little culturally-bound units with discrete borders and governments; and empires, which swallow up nationalities and subject all to the rule of some overarching sovereign. The real choice in front of us, Hazony informs us, is between nationalism and imperialism, these days, the imperialism of super-national bodies and ideologies: the EU, global liberalism, Islam, Marxism comes in but more as an example from the past.
Well, this is obviously stupid, and moreover, Hazony seems to get that, does so much hand-waving he could probably fly from his home in Israel to Brussels to tell the eurocrats how naughty they are. One big hand wave is that you only get nation-state status if you’re “strong enough.” Ahh! Well, ok then. That sorts that. He hand-waves the imperialism practiced by more or less every nation-state on earth, sometime in its history and usually in its present. That’s different, and basically ok (“hear that, Palestinians!!”). You get to do that when you’re a political scientist! There’s a huffing and puffing appeal to the “common sense” of people who have grown up with national sovereignty as a basic principle, and pretty gratuitously whacky claims, like that the Old Testament enshrines the nation-state form specifically.
What all this adds up to is one of two things: I think Hazony might have meant it as an appeal to the center; or, part of an intellectual fig leaf for the right, like that boy in the article would have in mind. But the center is shrinking and paralyzed, and increasingly, the right, from the “national conservatives” to open Nazis to Zionism, dispenses with fig leaves altogether. Among other things, they can’t make up their mind between Hazony’s three categories. They say they like nationalism, and some of them do, but seemingly on the basis that nation-states are the playable factions of the 4x or miniature battle game they think life either is or should be. But many of those same people clearly prefer tribal/clan models, or imperial models, or… it’s almost like sovereignty isn’t a “solved problem” with discrete categories but rather a set of techniques and priorities!
I give Hazony a little credit, but just a little, because sovereignty really isn’t a solved problem. Every now and again, a leftist looking to make a point, and they can come from the heights of the academy or the dregs of the Internet, crops up to crow about our lack of grounds on this issue, like a fat house cat bringing you a rubber band it caught but generally not cute. Well, they’re not wrong, though their solutions, which usually amount to “embrace nationalism, it’s fine,” generally are. At the same time, slapping one category on top of another like a trump — “class beats nationality, haha!” — clearly doesn’t do either. We might want it to be that way but in practice it doesn’t work. Hazony won’t help anyone clarify anything. But, unlike a lot of my readings on the right, especially contemporary ones, he’s at least in the neighborhood of an actual question, and in this category, I take the consolations I can get. **
Torrey Peters, “Detransition, Baby” (2021) (read by Renata Friedman) – Torrey Peters has said in interviews that she has structured this, one of the major contemporary trans novels that I know about, like a soap opera, with twists and turns and reveals paced for the sort of drama marketed towards the women to whom Peters dedicated this book: divorced cis women. It’s an interesting gambit, and echoes something that comes up a lot in this book and that I’ve thought a certain amount about.
Peters has virtually all of her characters, most notably trans woman Reese, detransitioned Ames (he lived as a trans woman for some number of years, in a relationship with Reese for most of that, before deciding to live as a man), most of their trans friends, and most cis people in the book, refer to trans people by a term I have had numerous trans and non-binary people inform me, mostly via social media, is a slur. No, not the short nasty t-word, but an earlier and vaguely medical-sounding term that most of my trans friends and associates have overthrown in favor of “transgender.” When I’ve discussed this book with people more knowledgeable about this stuff than me, they have told me this is reflective of a generational divide. Trans people roughly my age or younger are more likely ok with the word; younger trans people (and most of the trans people I know are younger than me, typically by ten years or more) are more likely to insist it’s a slur and use “transgender.”
I say all that to say this: Torrey Peters is doing a bunch of stuff in this novel, and one of them is at least somewhat ironically overdone but also sincerely meant generational war. Reese, in particular — and there are three people who could be called main characters in Detransition, Baby, but as the omniscient third person narrator would probably agree, Reese is the star — has no patience for what she refers to as “Twitter girls,” women, almost always trans women, who promulgate ideas and/or exhibit cultural styles associated with online social justice stuff. Reese, and that omniscient narrator when she weighs in doesn’t really disagree with them on the points, but she just has another way of being who she is that she feels cramped by their indignation. Reese doesn’t want to lead a revolution. She doesn’t want to assimilate, either, like the assimilé cis gay men and lesbians we see in the book. What does she want, then?
Well, it seems, mostly she wants to be a woman. This might sound trite, but I think is quite in keeping with how Peters describes Reese’s mental state, to say she wants to achieve the high scores in the most conventional, one might even say stereotyped, versions of womanly achievement. This gets into some questions I’ve never fully understood — that I generally haven’t pursued that much, because they’re delicate topics and I don’t want to hurt anyone with my critical poking and prodding — related to gender as performance. Arguably, some of what Reese gets into is reflective of another generational divide- Reese understands trans womanhood as a reflection, or an apotheosis even, of womanhood as established by normative cis culture. A lot of the trans people I know — and here it is worth noting I know a high portion of these friends and acquaintances from radical left-wing politics — are often defiantly uninterested in conforming to cis ideas of what gender looks or acts like.
That is not Reese’s way. Reese wants to own womanhood, wants to experience it as it has been sold to her on tv, though given some spins by trans experience and consciousness. Often, this takes the form of a competitiveness with the cis womanhood she looks to as a model, as in, “see how many of your alpha cis straight dude bros want to sleep with me, as opposed to you, cis lady.”
Maybe a point of convergence, though- motherhood. Above all Reese wants to be a mother, which she sees as the ultimate in womanhood. I could see younger trans people less invested in binary understandings of gender getting that, even if the concept they’d more immediately grasp for might be “parenthood,” which is not quite good enough for Reese. Reese would like (unaffordable) bottom surgery. Reese needs to be a mother, and has screwed up chances to be one with other selfish behaviors (seemingly driven by her need to prove her womanliness by having affairs with bad men? Or is that a bad read? You gotta understand my understanding of romantic relationships is pretty minimal).
She gets her chance! Sort of. In a miracle of unlikelihood, her ex-lover, Ames — who she knew as Amy — despite having his hormones and sperm count messed with by transitioning and detransitioning — manages to impregnate his boss, Katrina, a cis lady with whom he was having an affair. Katrina’s a divorced lady who has had a miscarriage, and she wants to be a mom but questions the conditions. She questions them even more when she finds out Ames had a past as a trans woman, and drunkenly outs him to coworkers, which leads to some grimly amusing scenes of HR managers at their ad firm trying to figure out whether they need to retool their bathrooms, etc. Ames, for his part, has been borderline crippled by his ambivalence towards his several dilemmas: “live his truth” as a woman despite the terrors of his trans life versus an easier life as a man, raise a child he’d maybe only stay with out of duty and loneliness, etc.
Ames comes up with a plan! Bring in Reese as a co-mother! By the time the plot unfolds, Reese and Ames had been broken up for years, the arc of their relationship told in flashbacks. Everyone involved with this scheme is skeptical. Katrina is thrown by this sudden prominence of trans-ness in her life, and takes it with what strikes me as a realistic mixture of efforts at understanding and bad mistakes. Reese doesn’t trust Ames or Katrina at first, and figures she’d just be some weird add-on to their ménage, not a “real” mother, and that this is some bass-ackwards scheme for Ames to both get her back and continue to deny his trans-ness.
After some ups and downs, the three come to some understandings. If nothing else, Reese and Katrina have a shared hobby of owning the hapless Ames (non-sexually, in Reese’s case, at least at that point in the narrative). Katrina learns some about trans and queer culture. Reese patrols the boundaries, attempting to keep Katrina from merely appropriating queer culture (the sort of phrase, if uttered by a “Twitter girl,” would probably make Reese scoff, but she does not enchain the hobgoblins of foolish consistency, Reese) and making Reese into a kind of prop.
Ultimately, it’s that dynamic that proves to be their undoing in the last part of the book, which has some strong points and some less strong points. Reese’s past experiments in hyper-womanhood come back to haunt her in the form of a bad man at the wrong place at the worst time. Katrina judges Reese’s behavior for both sensible reasons (facilitating cheating) and bad (AIDS panic). People make various dramatic choices. One of the key images of the novel comes when Reese adopts a method she finds on YouTube for dealing with grief, that gets confused for suicide (a tragically common fate for trans people). That her most dramatic moment comes via a YouTube video she watched with a mediocre cis dude hookup is pretty funny and poignant and feels real. Given the centrality it takes on, it feels like it would have been better introduced a little earlier? Workshop criticism, I know, but there it is. Katrina, Ames, and Reese all wind up together, in some sense, in the end, but in a deeply ambiguous and ambivalent manner.
This was good! It has sound story-telling fundamentals, a story worth telling, a sense of humor, a definite perspective. There’s real limits to how much I can say in terms of how it depicts trans life. I can say more about how it depicts millennial life, I think, even if it’s millennial life socially proximate but… ontologically distant from my own. It does that quite well, I think. I can recommend it pretty highly for people who want to read contemporary literature. ****’