Ann Patchett, “Bel Canto” (2001) – The main question this book raised for me was this: how to describe and rate a novel that has flawless prose, from sentence level to plot construction, but that is also, fundamentally, a little boring? That takes something notionally exciting — a hostage situation! wealthy socialites held by third world guerrillas! — and makes it, mostly, a site of examination for the personal regrets, cares, and in some cases growth of some of the hostages and hostage-takers?
Fine prose is one of the keys to Ann Patchett’s reputation. Another is her real lack of pretense. She hasn’t even got that sort of stuck up pretense of rebellion a lot of writers who manage to escape more conventional pretense wind up displaying. What you see is what you get. Patchett didn’t promise a deep, searing examination of the causes or effects of terrorism, of social stratification, or of anything else. She didn’t promise literary experiment. She told a story, and on a prose level, told it with unrivaled grace. There’s not even really any kind of prose pyrotechnics: just very clear, effective, elegant writing, every word in place.
There’s a theme, which is love. Love is put in extremis here. First, it’s a rich man’s love of opera. A Japanese executive, one of the richest men in the world, lets a small, impoverished Spanish-speaking nation bait him to a pitch meeting that the businessman doesn’t take seriously by getting the world’s greatest soprano to sing for him. The businessman is a big opera guy, you see. Once the terrorists take the dinner party over, love of art gets contrasted with the desire of the terrorists for revenge for various bad things their regime did, and the meaningless deaths that result. But the protracted siege allows hostage and hostage taker to come to some understandings. Love blossoms across these lines, and along them, little gesture of kindness depicted by Patchett with minute fineness and great emotional intelligence, especially for a scenario that could lend itself to laughable romanticism. The violence of the state comes along to take its own tax on love and humanity, but it goes on… for some, anyway.
Well… it’s not a bad plot. I didn’t find it especially compelling, especially as the characters, while elegantly sketched and differentiated, also weren’t super-interesting, and only had a limited range of action, given the circumstances Patchett put them in. I guess my main critique was that it’s almost too smooth. There’s no real “biting point,” nothing to chew on. Me and my eating metaphors! Surely, Patchett deserves a great deal of credit for her chops, in any event. ****’
Patricia Lockwood, “No One Is Talking About This” (2021) (read aloud by Kristen Sieh) – Well… I listened to this at a time where a fair few things came together for me. Whatever other effects this confluence had, it has made me very, very impatient with this book. I am informed, by people whose taste I respect, that Patricia Lockwood is a very talented writer, largely on the strength of her memoirs “Priestdaddy,” which I perhaps will one day read. I could see glimpses of it in this work, a smooth prose style and bits of humor. I have also been told she is a “master of Twitter.” This is probably part of the problem. I did not enjoy, like, or respect this book.
A friend of mine — a friend I’ve known exclusively online, if that matters, one I’ve known for years and shared writing and other intimacies with — did something extraordinarily self-destructive recently. His stated motivation for so doing, the way he went about it, and the formats in which he informed his friends, all simultaneously critiqued and reflected the sort of internet zeitgeist that seems to be one of the main topics of contemporary literary attention. His critique, and what he did in response, struck home not just for his perspicacity, though he is quite perceptive, or the extremity of his action, though it was quite extreme. It also struck home because at bottom, he and I are in similar positions- failed writer/intellectuals. People flinch from that word, “failed,” “failure” (like a certain other “f” word that I freely self-apply, “fat”). They point to my accomplishments, and they — I — point to his. They’re real. But there’s also no getting around the fact that neither my friend nor I can make a living from writing, academia, or any of the other societally-approved venues to cash out wordy oddballs.
So much for the material! I usually play straight man to this friend. In our dynamic, based as it is on discussing ideas and aesthetics, I’m the stolid one, considering the implications, striving for consistency, trying to be “real,” he’s the zany one, throwing such mundane concerns to the wind, even to the point where he’d dispute this characterization. No pigeon hole for him! Maybe this is the way to put it: I make statements; he makes gestures. Another way to put it: we discussed depression, once, and he told me some facts about narcissistic depression, the depression of people capable of making flashy gesture and big deals out of themselves (as you can tell, my psychological vocabulary is… impoverished), whereas my depression, my family’s depression, was more the self-obviating kind.
This friend would try to destroy himself all over again, I bet, before he accepted any kind of descriptor that said he, and his attempted last performance, were part of any kind of zeitgeist. Well, he doesn’t have to accept it. The thing that made me most angry as I read through his lengthy manifesto was the unsaid thesis: that he is above the real, above the quotidian. I answer emails about 3D printer failures forty hours a week, and try to eke out time for what I care about — writing, reading, organizing, fun time with friends and family — when I can. I can live with my failure to be a professional writer, and try to convert it into success, and this dude…
Well. This is not a request for an explainer on the realities of depression and suicide. I get it, please believe me, intellectually at least, and you’re hardly going to get me to grok it emotionally more than the last week or so already has, so please, please don’t try. Among other things, and here it’s hard to see how much my friend “meant it” — he is a long-term practitioner of the “Schrodinger’s Joke” — but his manifesto included instructions for his posthumous acclaim.
He’s not a “get famous or die trying” guy, exactly (he has invested a lot of energy in being hard to pin down). That’s made explaining this difficult, when I’ve tried to talk about what’s going on to other friends. I think it would be fair to say he is a “live in extraordinary fashion or try to die in extraordinary fashion” guy, or was, anyway. Surviving the experience seems to have woken him up to the fact that people care about him, and that living like the rest of us relatively-normie scrubs might indeed be preferable to death and mutilation.
So, getting back to “No One Is Talking About This” (including me for the last thousand plus words, hey-o!), it’s not a fame thing, exactly. It’s not an internet thing, exactly, though most of my friend’s relationships seem to take place there, and a good portion of his friend network do appear to be internet-damaged millennials. It’s a hands-up-thrown refusal of concrete reality that can’t, even, really commit to its own lack of commitment. That’s what I see, both in internet discourse and in the discourse about the discourse. Half-digested nth-generation tropes from continental ding dong philosophers who barely even meant it themselves, circulated and recirculated like old coins until even the names wear off… glibly talking like nothing is real and nothing is worth speaking seriously about even as they milk everything from derogated social media platforms to climate catastrophe for cheap bathos… well, my friend wasn’t down with that, either. And in his attempted final act, he tried to put some chits on a commitment, of sorts. But a commitment to what, exactly?
“No One Is Talking About This” is about an unnamed female narrator who becomes moderately famous via “The Portal,” i.e., Twitter, but, like seemingly everyone else who is connected to said social media platform, is unsure whether she likes it or hates it. It certainly has a profound effect on how she processes reality and communicates with others! This is gotten across in the text through a first half dominated by little vignettes, tweet-length remarks, no real plot, less “nods” or “winks” at James Joyce and more just Lockwood pointing openly at Joyce and saying “yeah, I’m doing that, but more so, because our TIME is just more so, you know?”
We do get a pivot to something like the real, due to a family crisis. The narrator has a family, the family has a crisis. It’s not really a plot, but it’s something other than a social media scroll (self-conscious, because, you know, we’re all so self-conscious now!!). That’s the thing… they really can’t manage either, these “we live in discourse hell” writers, whether fiction writers like Patricia Lockwood and Lauren Oyler or the legion of nonfiction commentators that shade into the overly-online people on your feed. They can’t do the all-pretend world that some cyber-boosters of the eighties and nineties promised, but they can’t really do the real, either. And they’ll insist that their inability mirrors a human inability, or at least a contemporary inability… and they’re not wrong. It’s an old theme and it’s been done reasonably well. What’s real, how much do our feelings determine at least the subjective reality of experience versus what’s “actually” in front of us blah blah blah.
Look- I’m not some “I fucking love science” dork or an objectivist. I’m a reader, trying to read something interesting. And “discourse hell” isn’t cutting it anymore, to the extent it ever did, and pivoting to noticing how hard it is to take a family tragedy totally seriously because you spend too much time online- that’s not gonna get you over, not with me, anyway. Maybe I should be able to do it. Maybe this really is “the human condition,” with an earned definite article and everything. Maybe every rejoinder I could make to that is a cliche about how we should read about Bangladeshi factory workers instead (it isn’t, but the internet smallfolk can make you feel that way, when they’re all saying the same shit- we are social apes, after all), maybe I’m the stupid, blockheaded socialist realist next to the beautiful thoughtful modernists in the thirties tableau (the latter already on their way to neoconservatism but later for that).
But I don’t think that’s how it is.
I said there was a confluence of factors that, perhaps unfairly to Lockwood, rendered me incapable of enjoying or respecting this book. One was my friend’s situation. Another, longer-term one, is that I am, sort of, recovering from depression. I’ve felt better the last few years than I have in a long time. Life is far from perfect, but I experience more feelings (and I’ll say it- whatever set me up for success in terms of family and friend support and talk therapy, antidepressants landed the most important blows). One of those is anger. I’ve gotten used to suppressing it, got used to thinking of it as a self-indulgent gesture of my adolescent self (which, when I was an adolescent, it often enough was). But let’s put it this way: I experience anger as impatience. And I can still be very, very patient, when the thing I am being asked to contribute is just time, or honest effort.
My patience for dishonesty, though, is gone. My patience for glibness is gone. Worn through. My patience for bullshit is mostly gone, the only thing keeping it from being entirely effaced is an appreciation for funny bullshit. You can do what you want. You can be as glib as you want, act as though it’s all just performance and I’m just doing a dishonest (hypocritical!) glibness myself. You can “cringe” (there, using it as a verb, not an adjective, like we’re supposed to). You can fuck off, or not. But I’m not doing it anymore. Not with Lockwood, who is intermittently funny but not funny enough, not here, and not with you.
Because on top of whatever else it is — genuine cris de coeur over authenticity! Artistic expression of your experience! Funny memes! — the glibness of the “we live in the hell of discourse” thing is intensely disrespectful. It does not live in peace, as I would live in peace with the internet people. It oversteps, by nature. It disrespects life, disrespects effort, personally disrespects everyone who tries to live something better than a shitty day on any given “hell site.” And they generally haven’t even got the integrity to admit that they are spitting in your face. A number of internet strangers recently, and at least one or two IRL acquaintances, have behaved disrespectfully to me, impugned my intelligence and my integrity, and, my patience gone, I asked or told them to stop, and I got earfuls about my “defensiveness.” “U mad, bro?!” gone to therapy. Fuck off. I see you, and I’m not playing. Not now, not anymore.
Ironically, my self-destructive friend discussed a fair amount of what I’m saying now in an essay of his on… well, notionally on David Foster Wallace, but really on the whole literary scene circa 2010, around when it was written. His major thesis is that because hipster writers (this is back when hipster discourse was a thing) live such cushy lives that they have no real suffering to write about, and so write about a fake suffering, the feeling of inauthenticity. I have a number of friendly critiques of that article but I think, if anything, the situation has degenerated since then, even if we’ve made the relative advance of ditching hipster discourse. Now, books like this one, and “Fake Accounts” and I tend to imagine many others, somehow manage to be “about” ever less, and to be corrosively hateful to even the possibility of being about anything at all, and somehow, somehow! managing to dump themselves into the same old same old of familial sentimentality or careerist pseudo-heroism in the end.
I can agree with the internet scribblers about this much- it is a discouraging picture. But I have a better solution than they have- turning the fucking page. The exigencies of my reading scheduling, a fun little game for me, has led to my next audiobook being about the Armenian militants who hunted down and shot the Turkish pashas who led the genocide against their people. A perfect palate-cleanser!
I turned definitively against this book after Lockwood, culminating a series of little jokes about how being political is stupid — I get the impression she is meant to be a somewhat serious leftist, who knows, I don’t care — belittled people’s reactions to the killing of Heather Heyer at Unite the Right in Charlottesville. A good friend of mine was a medic on the scene. She split a vuvuzela in half to manufacture a splint for someone’s broken leg. Why are we telling the story of some dumb internet person’s inability to be honest about their, or any, situation, again? Why are we telling it over and over again? I don’t care what a commie you think you are, this whole fucking business is fash nonsense.
What did we do when the altright manifested itself out of the discourse? We — the actually committed, the ones who know we’re imperfect and fucked up and still drag our asses out into the productive real, no matter how “cringe” it makes us — dragged it into reality and we kicked the shit out of it and now, no one, not even Richard Spencer, will admit to being altright. There’s still fascists, and we’re working on them, but that bridge burned, because we burned it. That’s the reality I’m interested in. That’s the reality I live in, and I’m not going to take disrespect for living in it, even — especially — if it’s sly, sneaky disrespect that acts like I’m just being “defensive.” Lockwood gets an extra half star over her rival, Oyler, for being funny, sometimes. But I’m done. Quite done. **
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Mexican Gothic” (2020) (read aloud by by Frankie Corzo) – It’s hard to say many people benefited from covid, and I’m not really willing to say Canadian horror writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia was one, but her breakout novel, “Mexican Gothic,” fit the mood, found a literally captive audience, and became a big enough hit to make it to my “zeitgeisty reads” slot. It’s also basically “Get Out” Latin American, a novel, and considerably less deft than Jordan Peele’s hit horror-satire film. It’s a reasonably promising premise: a young Mexican ingenue in the fifties has to go rescue a lady cousin from the clutches of an evil house and the family that lives there and which the cousin married into.
Here’s the thing with the increasing awareness of a certain kind of history and politics among the sort of writers who, twenty-thirty years ago, would have made a point of not giving a shit: it can be used to score cheap points and cover over flaws in the execution of a work of art. It’s the closest the anti-PC crowd gets to a point when it comes to criticism, and fittingly, the baying hordes of anonymous commenters come closer — though not very close — to the truth of the matter than the notionally smarter contrarian essayists and podcasters paid to opine about it. It’s not some big conspiracy. It’s just fashion. So the ingenue is a girl-boss who never needs anyone’s help and always has a ready zinger- no innocent final girl here! The evil family are creepy British race science people, as though Mexico lacks its own oppressors and cooperators with foreign oppressors. That’s one thing Peele managed in “Get Out” that his many imitators have not- contemporary relevance and real strangeness. Given that he only had the suburbs to work with, that’s quite a feat.
The plot of “Mexican Gothic” is sufficiently by-the-numbers that if she was so inclined, Moreno-Garcia could probably argue it’s that way intentionally, as an homage to the cheesy horror we’re all supposed to love. There’s about as much feeling for being in either the 1950s, or in Mexico, or really in danger, as there is in any cheap period drama, or actually probably rather less, given there’s no set design to carry it off. Everyone talks like a contemporary person or a contemporary person’s bad parody, more worthy of a sarcastic tweet than a novel, of what various stock characters — the creepy racist, the bookish innocent — from the past would sound like. It wasn’t a terrible book. But it was mediocre and I have to figure covid-brain has something to do with its rapturous reception. **’
Russell Kirk, “The Conservative Mind” (1953) – There’s a big pull quote on most editions I’ve seen of this book — and there’s been lots, conservative presses keep it in print — by William Buckley, saying something like that the modern conservative movement would be inconceivable without Russell Kirk, and “The Conservative Mind” in particular. Like much of what Buckley says, it’s neither quite true nor quite lie. Russell Kirk was a funny little nerd, an accomplished horror writer, wikipedia tells me, along with being a conservative ideologue. His ideas on what conservatism meant were sufficiently heterodox that a lot of big names on the right registered serious disagreement with him, and with this book in particular. You have to figure the right-wing juggernaut of the second half of the American twentieth century could have missed one divisive nerd.
That said, there is some truth here. The fifties were a good time to be an anglophone pedant with a systematizing streak. A country that not twenty years earlier was suffering a massive depression and ideological ferment which led right, left, and center to borrow like mad from foreign sources was now, all of a sudden, the center of the world, the source of authority and economic value. That’s a weird set of circumstances to adjust to, and it was the guys on the spot — not necessarily the smartest guys (gendered pronoun used advisedly) with the best ideas — who got to take advantage of sitting on the commanding heights. On the liberal side of the fence, structural functionalist social scientists like Talcott Parsons were, so they thought, comprehending social reality and finding that it looked a lot like fifties America. Among leftists… well, there weren’t a lot left.
With conservatives, guys like Buckley’s pal Kirk had a similarly wide-open field to define conservatism. It might look like a thankless effort at the heyday of the liberal postwar order, when liberal social scientists like Daniel Bell were proclaiming “the end of ideology” and Lionel Trilling was calling conservatism less an ideology and more “an irritable mental gesture.” But it wasn’t. Buckley wasn’t as smart as he thought he was, but he was cunning, and he knew plenty of people hungered for the old prejudices, and that the liberal order had holes in its game a mile wide (if your best defenders are guys like Bell and Trilling, you’re in trouble). Arguably, the biggest problem he had was that the whole right of the political spectrum was associated with the Nazis, and in America with opponents of the New Deal and other popular liberal reforms, many of whom liked the Nazis until the Nazis forced them to pretend otherwise. You can go back and forth on whether Gore Vidal was right to call Buckley a “Nazi” (I typically don’t seriously call people that unless they hate the Jews- “fascist” does just as well). But it wasn’t a good look.
Russell Kirk, in what I imagine was a gormless, pedantic way, helped give Buckley and his coterie an out. Kirk waved his hand at the whole tradition of conservative, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary thought since the French Revolution and said that pretty much only the British and the Americans count. He lets Tocqueville in the door, an honorary Anglo-American, but that’s it. Hegel and anything he touches- out, his impious dialectics too divorced from traditional life, or something. Frenchmen like Maistre? Right out. A nice nod near the beginning and then shown the door. Certainly, no fascists need apply (in keeping with the custom at the time, and with Buckley’s own program, he could be more “nuanced” in support of slavery and the Confederacy), what with their “totalitarian” designs. The point of conservatism is to “CONSERVE,” remember??
Corey Robin tee’d up on this book and knocked it down so hard there’s very little redeeming any of its central arguments. The title of Robin’s breakout book, “The Reactionary Mind,” is a play on Kirk’s title, and gets at what actually animates the right: not “conserving” anything, but reacting to advances on the part of the lower orders of society. Robin did most of his work through the simple expedient of a thoroughgoing reading of figures Kirk thought he had a near-monopoly on, like Edmund Burke, and broadening his scope a smidgen to include people outside Kirk’s large but limited hall of fame. There’s a reason, between Robin’s work and the time that it reflects, the era between 9/11 and the Trump election, that “the point is to CONSERVE, it’s there in the NAME,” went from being common sense to a joke to everyone except a small clique (including a disproportionate number of op-ed writers, alas) of liberal-conservative dead-enders.
Well, that lonely gal Minerva’s owl tends to fly at dusk. To bring in another animal metaphor, Robin shut the barn door after the horse got out (arguably, in an effort to get us to… not ride horses? What would the metaphor here even be?). It’s unlikely that Kirk did it all on his own. Not that many people read his ponderous tome. But it helped establish a foothold for the idea that conservatism was genteel, thoughtful, and not at all scary, violent, or fascistic like the experience of the thirty or so years before 1953 might indicate. He defined the Scotsman in such a way that Buckley’s new club could deny entry to anyone who would make the new conservative movement look bad (including actual Scotsman and major right-wing thinker Thomas Carlyle- kind of hard to imagine a meaningful history of conservatism without him, but people like Isaiah Berlin were saying he was a fascist progenitor at the time, so best to leave him out).
Mutatis mutandis, “The Conservative Mind” presents conservatism as the sort of thing Buckley could sell to Anglo-American audiences at the time, a collection of gentlemen standing athwart history yelling “stop!” No-good philosophers, soulless bureaucrats, and the dumb masses that follow them want to tear down all that’s good in the world and replace it with abstractions, which inevitably leads to terror. What’s needed is a few good men grounded in reality to fight a rearguard action against them and salvage what they can to keep civilization going. How to create a whole ideology out of the particulars of a given reality that spans time and space? Well, Kirk doesn’t really answer that very well. Mostly he punts to religion, which is a non-answer as his conservative minds, if they were born two hundred years earlier, would have been co-signing the slaughter of their fellow conservatives because they called it “church” instead of “mass.” But this was Eisenhower-era America, which saw the promulgation of “Judeo-Christianity” as a bulwark against the left. It could play then. And Kirk also throws out enough stuff about how conservatism promotes individuality, and liberalism/leftism supposedly doesn’t, that it fit in with Buckley’s aim to make American conservatism seem cool and rebellious. It played- it shouldn’t have, but it did.
You’d think a book with this kind of agenda, and that was wrong about its major points, and that was written by a man motivated by deep pedantry and ideological fervor, would be bad. Well, in many respects it is. But I actually enjoyed a lot of it. Kirk really did go deep, in his vein. He told interesting, if often bathos-laden, stories of interesting figures. Being forced to stick to Brits and Americans, he had to go rummaging around to fill the bench out. So we get the stories of weirdos and assholes like John Randolph of Roanoke, Fisher Ames, Orestes Brownson, assorted Lords who farted out some essays about how revolutionary France was bad before overdosing on laudanum and beef. They’re genuinely interesting. He sent me to wikipedia time and again to learn what this or that old-timey politician, philosopher, or faction was. I like that kind of read (I never get why people nowadays have an issue with references to figures or words they don’t know, when they carry the internet in their pocket).
That’s not to say that “The Conservative Mind” also didn’t irritate me. I’m also a pedant and have trouble sitting through presentations of dumb ideas peaceably. Kirk tries to carry his argument with a high-serious tonality — another artifact that reminded me of the War on Terror era — and yields a patronizing head pat from anyone who knows better. And, of course, he was writing this as the Civil Rights struggle started. He sort of waffles about slavery. He was a northerner, he doesn’t find it good, and he embraces at least some anti-slavery figures, including John Quincy Adams. But he puts himself in the hands of the Dunning School — abolitionists were fanatics, ala the sans-culottes, and Reconstruction was a corrupt failure — and trusts the cliches Dunning at al taught to generations of American schoolchildren to get him through to his readers. I imagine they heard him loud and clear.
But my star ratings come from goodreads, originally, and goodreads says they’re based on enjoyment. I put this in a similar category to David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed.” Every now and again people ask me if I’ve read it. As the askers are perhaps impressed by the book’s heft and range of research, I have to let them down gently when I tell them that its thesis — that American culture, from 1609 on down, is defined by four (4) British subcultures with no meaningful change or even mixture or adaptation in the intervening four centuries of epochal historical change — is ludicrous, the kind of thing Fischer could not have published even ten years later. But- I keep my copy of it around, because it’s kind of a fun “let’s dip in and see how Scots-Irish ‘folkways’ surrounding childcare differed from equivalent Quaker ways” sort of book. Just don’t take it seriously. It’s the same here. Read for the stories of drunken swaggering “orator” John Randolph of Roanoke or T.S. Eliot transforming himself from Tom from Saint Louis into aged sage Tiresias, you probably don’t need to take the whole thing at one go. ****