Review – Emezi, “Freshwater”

Akwaeke Emezi, “Freshwater” (2018) (read aloud by the author) – Readers and reviewers spoke of this book as a revelation. I didn’t find it to be that, entirely, but I have an advantage: I’m a genre fiction reader. The idea of a fractured self expressed through mythological/religious tropes isn’t a new one on me, or the juxtaposition of ancient belief systems and contemporary living. So when Nigerian author Emezi has their autobiographical stand-in, Ada, experience possession by multiple spirits – ogbanje, not exactly friendly, not entirely demonic – as a way of explaining what someone steeped in western psychiatry would call multiple personalities, I wasn’t as blown away as the sort of person who usually reads somewhat-experimental fiction given big pushes by mainstream literary publishers with pastel covers might be.

It’s still a decent idea, though. Ada starts her (the character uses she/her pronouns and mostly identifies as a girl and a woman, even if one of the spirits inside her is a man- Emezi is nonbinary, though doesn’t deny the autobiographical element here) journey with the ogbanje early in her childhood in Nigeria. She’s not just a third culture kid, she might be a fourth or fifth, with an Igbo Nigerian father and a Malaysian mother who raise her in a variety of places, even if Nigeria anchors her childhood and America her young adulthood. She’s sexually assaulted by a boyfriend in college (which she starts at sixteen) and that’s when some of the ogbanje come to more or less take over her body for extended periods of time, putting Ada in the backseat. 

Most of the book is written from the first person perspective of one or another of these spirits. They relate their perspective, the actions they either see Ada perform or foist on Ada, their conversations with Ada and sometimes with rival spirits inside of her. The spirits are insightful, dependent on their human host while somewhat contemptuous of her (but more so of other people), possessed of some virtues, like loyalty, but no morality to speak of- and hungry for blood and suffering. Ada appeases them mostly by cutting herself and by getting into bad relationships with men. Sometimes, Ada tries to destroy the spirits or rout them from her, other times, the spirits try to get Ada to let them loose into the spirit realm, i.e., kill herself. Neither succeed, and Ada eventually learns to live with the ogbanje, as well as other, less identifiable spirits who seem to have her welfare, or a version of it, more in mind. 

At some point, and maybe someone has started already, but someone will have to write about the impact of post-1965 US immigration policy, specifically as it relates to favoring highly-skilled knowledge workers and students, on literature. Immigration, sojourning, exile, etc. have always been themes in literature, and structural aspects of the creation of literary communities. I do think there’s a prominence to immigrant literature, and especially to the literature of immigrants from middle-class (or above) backgrounds today, of third- (fourth-, fifth-) culture kids, in contemporary English-language letters, that’s worth studying. Among other things, this may be the work of a contemporary black author that I’ve read that has the least to say about race, though it has a lot to say about Nigerian and Igbo culture. If anything, the spirits contrast Ada’s experiences and attitudes with those of black American schoolmates more than white people, though Ada does meet plenty of those- though, mostly it seems, international students from Europe, including her main love interest, a dreamy Irish fuck-boy named Ewan. Ada came to America when she was sixteen, and moves across oceans and continents perhaps not in perfect comfort… but her discomfort comes more from being inhabited by spirits and having bad interpersonal relationships than from bigotry, homesickness, dislocation, or the usual woes one associates with immigrant experiences. 

I wrote about this some when I discussed Jhumpa Lahiri a few weeks ago. I feel like foreign students and young professionals have been a part of my life more or less since high school or college, if not before, and are a fixture of life for most Americans who go through higher education, probably most inhabitants of the other rich countries as well. The paradox is that, coming from hundreds of different cultures all over the world, they’re the most heterodox bunch imaginable in some ways… but given the ways that schools and employers select, they tend to be much more homogenous in terms of class background, and of course, the experience of migration, of adaptation to the host country, of embedding in institutions that have now, in some cases decades hence, made adaptations to the presence of immigrants, migrants, guest workers and so on, has a certain group-making effect, too. 

Here’s a trope I see in both the literature and in conversations both had with friends and acquaintances from the sort of international-student/knowledge worker milieu and have overheard them have themselves: Americans are generally blander, less interesting, less emotionally-alive than “internationals.” The internationals live, the Americans (usually, but not always, white) kind of shuffle through life in a cloud of privilege and occasional disaster. This tracks, I’d say. Among other things, you have to have some initiative to bother schlepping all the way over here. Generations of life as the global hegemon will tend to make the upper-middle-class-and-above scions of said hegemony a little dull, I bet. Combine the aftereffects of WASP culture and the hollowness of consumer culture, and you get people who put their surface feelings up front for all to see (and hear!) but who you don’t really get to know, if there’s anything to know, for years or decades. I sometimes wonder if the real divide in the world is between people whose countries have meaningful historical memories of defeat and occupation, and those who don’t. The unflattering emotional depiction of Americans I just painted can be applied to the next most prominent group of people today who haven’t seen a military occupation for almost a millennium, the English, and inhabitants of its other settler colonies. You could paint it positively – people from countries that haven’t experienced that kind of defeat as more optimistic, or whatever – but it’s hard to sell that pretty much any time after 9/11. 

So, Ada lives in America but barely notices Americans. I don’t say this as a complaint, but I do think it’s notable, and I also think it relates to how Ada (and Emezi) treat the ogbanje. Every now and again Ada worries that she’s crazy. But less than you might think! She worries more that she’s in pain, she’s depressed, she has terrible relationships, she can’t find a place in the world. Yes, the ogbanje try to kill her- but they also protect her and give her an odd sort of power. This, whatever else it is supposed to be, is an interesting way to express how a young woman with one foot in a modesty culture and another in hook-up culture might experience her sexual power (and its strict limitations vis-a-vis extracting humane behavior from the men in her life). She doesn’t need to be rid of the ogbanje. That’d be American nonsense, the ogbanje would say, and which it seems Ada, and perhaps Emezi, would accept. Such is life for the alive international versus the dead single-culture and/or Anglo. 

The flip side is, in a story told by quasi-demons with little in the way of consistent framework beyond momentary sating of desire, there’s not a great need for continuity. Characters pop up, one of the ogbanje explain that they are very important to Ada, big stuff happens to them, and then they’re gone, for someone else to come along and reflect the relationship between Ada and the spirits for a chapter or two. On top of this, if you’re expecting anything particularly spectacular, even within Ada’s head, as she and her demons battle it out (including demons battling with each other), you’re going to be disappointed. A snake shows up in her bathroom as a baby, there’s some somewhat distended writing, the spirits and Ada argue in the “marble room” of her brain- a fancy waiting room, essentially, Basically, it does seem like the daring-concept tail wagging the literary-execution dog, at times. In keeping with the point I was making earlier, “international” navel-gazing, even from international rich kids, is generally better than the same produced in the Anglo-American world, but it only ever delivers so much without the injection of something more. ***’

Review – Emezi, “Freshwater”

Review – Sapkowski, “Blood of Elves”

Andrzej Sapkowski, “Blood of Elves” (1994) (translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok) (read aloud by Peter Kenny) – Three possibilities, here: the first is that you really should read the Witcher short stories before starting this, the first novel in the Witcher series, the Polish fantasy epic that has taken the world by storm via video game and netflix adaptation. The second possibility is that Andrzej Sapkowski just really expects you to be very heavily invested in his characters, especially titular Witcher (freelance mutated monster hunter, more or less) Geralt of Rivia (pronounced like a townie saying “Revere”) and his sometimes lover, the enchantress Yennefer, and that reading the previous short stories won’t really give you much more reason to care about them. There’s also the possibility of “both” – the earlier stories will give you more background, and Sapkowski has an exaggerated idea of how compelling his characters are.

In any event, “Blood of Elves” could probably use more context than I had to fully enjoy, but I also admired that it didn’t hold the reader’s hand too much. You get plunged into… I’m not sure that the world or part of the world in which it is set has a name, or if I just haven’t remembered, but anyway, a continent sort of like a mish-mashed medieval Europe. People describe the Witcher series as based in Slavic myth- I don’t know enough Slavic myth to say, but it makes sense, though from the names, institutions, etc., it doesn’t seem like Sapkowski is shy of dashing in cultural influences from all over Europe. It’s a fractured land with many kings ruling minor principalities, and there are also elves, dwarves, gnomes, and other sentient fantasy creatures running around, living in uneasy peace with the humans who are relative newcomers to the land. Looming over it all (like how Russia and/or Germany have loomed over Poland, historically, one is tempted to say) is Nilfgard, which tried to take over the whole area a few years back and did a lot of damage in failing to do so. 

There’s a little girl, Ciri, who’s a refugee from the last war, and heir to the throne of one of the kingdoms (since occupied by Nilfgard). For both reasons of state – others of the royal lines want to use her as a symbol, or marry her into their families to establish a claim to her former realm – and reasons of prophecy, she is a Special Child. She hangs out at Witcher academy for a while, which is where we run into Geralt. She gets trained in Witcher stuff, like fighting, but they don’t zap her with mutagens to give her Witcher powers, super strength etc., and also the Witcher’s separation from humanity. She also trains some in magic with Geralt’s on-again off-again lover, the enchantress Yennefer. 

There’s a lot more training, scheming, and portents – a lot, a lot of divining portents, most of them to do with Ciri’s special destiny and how it relates to Geralt – than there is real action, here, which again, might have been cooler had I done the preliminary reading. Geralt swears to protect Ciri, and there’s something about Ciri being “promised to him” in prophecy, and it’s unclear whether that means marriage or protection or what (the former is a little creepy because she’s a kid, and Sapkowski doesn’t stint on grown-up characters commenting on her “development” as she enters adolescence, which is about as fun to listen to as it sounds). One of the portents means she has to leave Witcher academy, though I’ll be damned if I could figure out why. They have to travel through a countryside with a pretty well-depicted guerrilla insurgency/counterinsurgency war going on between elves and humans who used to be chill together. Geralt has to do some derring-do monster fighting on a boat, and some spy stuff. Then there’s more portents and that’s more or less it. 

There’s cool stuff in here but it doesn’t really gel- though again, I’m not sure if that’s the style, or if I’m just missing the context of the earlier books, like if I tried to start “The Lord of the Rings” with the second or third book. I kind of doubt it would blow me away anyway, but it’s fun enough to pick up the series again sometime, this time, at the proper beginning. ***’

Review – Sapkowski, “Blood of Elves”

Review – Fountain, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Ben Fountain, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2012) – I came at this one precisely backwards. I saw the Ang Lee adaptation of this Iraq War film – really, more of a movie about surviving the Iraq War – with my roommate. We had heard it was very peculiar and a box office disaster, in part due to Lee’s decision to film at a very high frame rate. My roommate had just gotten a Blu-Ray player, or whichever technology it is, and so the painfully sharp images, which remind me of nothing so much as certain PBS productions, were right there in the living room. I didn’t even know it was based on a novel until I started asking around for good literary depictions of chaotic crowd scenes. A friend recommended this book, I found it used, here I am.

It’s good! The titular Billy Lynn is a nineteen year old private in the Army infantry. He’s there because he got in trouble back home and because he wasn’t sure what else to do with himself- his family isn’t exactly poor, but it’s not very functional. Billy’s squad was involved in a firefight in Iraq that wound up becoming a symbol of American courage (and lethality) as the Iraq war soured, won his squad and himself medals, and killed Billy’s best friend and mentor, Shroom. The Army brings the squad back to the US to be shown off at various events (especially in battleground states- this was 2004). The tour culminates at a Dallas Cowboys thanksgiving day home game, in Billy’s native Texas, where the squad is expected to meet and greet various big wheels and take part in a halftime show with Destiny’s Child.

Fountain weaves numerous threads — the squad’s efforts to get decent pay for selling their story to Hollywood, Billy’s sister (who was the origin point of the trouble that sent him overseas) desperately trying to get Billy out of going back to Iraq in two days, Billy finding unlikely love with a cheerleader, weird fights with roadies — around Billy Lynn. He skillfully keeps the threads wrapped around a central concept- the war sucks, but it also became the squad’s home. They can only really understand and be understood by each other. They’re not “boots” (to borrow a term from Marine, as opposed to Army, culture)- they don’t think the Army is great or civilian life without merits or the war good. They just are what they are — infantry grunts — and they can no more walk away from that than abandon selfhood. It changes their consciousness, not just their loyalties.

It’s not enough to say that Billy and the squad despise civilian America, like 21st century freikorps types. Pretty much all of them want to go back, when their hitch is through- they see themselves as, and are, hardened fighters, but not necessarily as a career. But there is a lot to despise in a 2004 patriotism-themed Dallas Cowboys outing- waste, ugliness, fake piety and endless fairweather patriotism. The aughts were a time when you could see America as a blind giant, monstrously strong but utterly incapable of using its strength in a sensible way, whether in the Middle East or just, maybe, giving the PTSD-suffering infantry squad some hint of what they’re expected to do during a halftime show in front of thousands and broadcast to millions. The halftime show was, presumably, the chaotic mob scene that my friend recommended I look at, and it is a fine scene, all of the endless money, noise, and sex of civilian America turned up to 11 and whirled around a group of confused teenaged soldiers. 

From the cheap seats — mine, and that of Ben Fountain, who does not seem to have been in the military (he thanks people in the acknowledgment for filling him in on service life), it seems that the life of the grunt is the life of a young man, distilled. Put him into a tribe of young men, isolate him from others, and then put the group into extreme situations. There’s power there — who has gained or exercised power in this world without putting young men in isolated groups, putting arms in their hands, and directing them against those who stand in their way? — but that power gets put in the hands of others, who are generally indifferent to the grunts’ fates. Billy and his comrades try to tap into a little bit of it- to sell their story and make some money (typically, just enough money to get their families out of some lousy situation, not enough to be rich), to get laid, to slack off, to drink and gamble and live the life most young men want to lead amongst other young men. But the structures around them — that they take part in, by coercion but also by accepting default — channel most of their power to the structure’s end. 

I guess if I had a criticism of this book, it’s the comparative lack of narrative thrust and, basically, stuff happening. Two fights — including one involving lethal violence — with a bunch of random roadie stagehands forces along the action, and feel wedged in. In general, though, limited agency on the parts of grunts makes a certain degree of sense. Even when offered a way out, there’s a certain extent to which Billy simply can’t take it, can’t be other than what he is. He and his sergeant can spite some money men looking to exploit their story, to finally bite back at a civilian world that has used and confused them, but that’s about it. Still- that seems reflective, of the lot of life of those who serve, and, if I dare make a comparison between (sacred) troops and (profane) civilians, of most of our lots. Fountain deserves a lot of credit for taking risks — setting the story during one day (with flashbacks), playing around with format in some places, having an important character be dead and only exist in Billy’s memory and imagination — and making this story as compelling as it is. ****’

Review – Fountain, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”

Review – Schou, “Orange Sunshine”

Nicholas Schou, “Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and Its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World” (2010) (read aloud by Stephen Bowlby) – Due to various life decisions, despite not being a user of psychedelics (at this point I’m not even really opposed, it just seems like more bother than it’s worth) I have read a reasonable amount about the social history of their use in the US. Not as much as I could! The psychedelic scene is really, really well-documented, or anyway the early scene around figures like Timothy Leary, before LSD became as profoundly, absurdly illegal as it would become! But a fair amount. I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the business end, so I gave a listen to this account of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an Orange County, California-based group variously described as a cult, a “hippie mafia,” a circle of men with similar spiritual ideas, etc. The Brotherhood might be best known for, at one point, dropping thousands of doses of LSD over a rock concert by airplane, and for commissioning the Weather Underground to bust Timothy Leary out of jail and smuggle him to Algeria.

Author Nicholas Schou is an Orange County-area journalist who tracked down a lot of old Brotherhood members to get their stories. Like most long form crime journalism I read, there’s more in the way of anecdote and name-dropping (visits from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and a lot of involvement with Timothy Leary) than I’d prefer and less detail about organizational culture, strategy, etc., though I will say it’s actually better in terms of analytical detail than most similar books. To me, the most interesting stuff wasn’t how high anyone got, or all the ways the group found to smuggle LSD, hashish, and regular old weed into various places. There’s a cultural transition you see in the very beginning that intrigues me. 

The core of the Brotherhood was made up of a group of fairly nasty young low-level criminals. These were the flotsam of the (white) Southern California dream, kids who born to families who washed up in working-class suburbs (though it’s worth noting “working class” in white Southern California in the fifties still meant cars, surfboards, plenty of leisure time at the beach) and seemingly had no ambition other than making small-time criminal deals and fighting. There’s a lot about fighting here, future Brotherhood members just beating the hell out of people for the temerity to be from another high school or beach town. 

And then, sometime around 1966 or 1967, they discovered acid. And here, depending on how much you buy the Brotherhood’s nonviolent rep – Schou mostly buys it, other journalists less so (and cops much less so, but who cares) – acid transformed these guys from an obsession with random violence to something resembling inner peace. They stopped wanting to beat up everyone not from their clique, and wanting all of them to take acid and feel the oneness of the universe or whatever. Failing that, they wanted to go to a tropical island somewhere and have a Huxley-inspired island utopia. 

In order to achieve both ends – and, one suspects, because it’s what, other than brawling, they knew how to do – the Brotherhood became some of the major dealers of acid, marijuana, and eventually refined marijuana product hashish, in Southern California and beyond. Somewhere between getting in a new market and native business savvy, they turned Laguna Beach into a hub of drug trafficking. They worked with legendary counterculture chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley to develop better and stronger varietals of lsd, culminating in the titular “Orange Sunshine” (one anonymous Brother confessed to giving some — a lot — to the Hell’s Angels at before they killed a guy at the Altamont pop festival, in an effort to calm them down!). They pioneered smuggling hashish out of Afghanistan and into the US. One group bought a yacht in the Caribbean, loaded it with high quality Mexican marijuana, almost died crossing the Pacific, and brought it to Maui, where it became a parent to some famous strains. 

Alas, the Brothers never got their island utopia- the ones who settled on pre-tourism industry Maui came the closest. One of the leaders did set up a sort of commune camp in the mountains outside Palm Springs, but that ended poorly- they didn’t maintain the camp, people left, internal divisions, the leader eventually died there, though the location seems to be incidental to the cause of the death (overdose of psilocybin, which I have never heard of before, but I know it makes you puke so it makes sense I guess). Timothy Leary was happy to make use of them as evangelists, Front men, and a get out of jail free card, but by the time Leary was pronouncing himself the most evolved human of all time in Algiers (just before the Panthers put a gun to his head and made him declare himself in favor of violent overthrow of the US government), the Brothers lost most of their interest in him. In the seventies, the newly-formed DEA caught up with the Brotherhood, a number of them went down, and the group drifted apart.

This is reasonably decent narrative history/journalism. To tell the truth, the individual Brothers tend to merge together- from tediously aggressive beach bum goons to tediously enlightened trickster smugglers. Some of them cared more about the money than others- and all of them did a certain amount “for the cause,” which was one of the things that both brought them to fed attention with their evangelism, and helped keep the group together. If acid really did lead these guys to go from wannabe killers to dudes who just really, really liked acid and surfing, more power to it. There are intimations of darker things — connections to the Manson Family, and something tells me that many Brothers didn’t spend that much time in Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey without some connections to US intelligence (which helped take some of them down in the end) — but Schou doesn’t really track them down. He doesn’t show them as angelic, even post acid-conversion — there were some creepy cult aspects to their behavior (weird biblical patriarchal gender rules, for instance), they were fine with turning on and then screwing underage girls, etc — but isn’t willing to show them doing anything the group itself would consider really wrong… well, maybe it’s truth, maybe it’s stenography. I don’t know. ***’

Review – Schou, “Orange Sunshine”

Reviews – Vidal, “Burr”

Gore Vidal, “Burr” (1973) – My first Gore Vidal novel! Without quite meaning to, it seems that Gore Vidal set himself up pretty well for posthumous approval. I don’t know how many people my age or younger actually read his work, but plenty of them quote approvingly encounters with his long list of enemies: William Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Henry Kissinger. He was also on The Simpsons that time! Enough to endear yourself, much more than similar big white chiefs of midcentury American literature have done with twenty-first century literate types.

I got “Burr” from a library free pile, and hence, am violating my usual practice- I like to read series in chronological order. I didn’t know when I picked it up that “Burr” is part of Vidal’s “Chronicles of Empire” series, where he does his thing by following American history and writing scabrous thing about respected patriotic idols. “Burr” is the volume that takes place earliest in American history, but is not the first published. Rats! 

Anyway, as the title implies, Aaron Burr, revolutionary war hero, lawyer, vice-president, guy who shot Alexander Hamilton, alleged would-be conqueror of Mexico and/or the American west, all around scoundrel and bon-vivant, is the central figure in this book. The book takes place in the 1830s, after Burr has returned to the United States after being pseudo-exiled for treason and murder. He’s old, now, and has worked for some time as a lawyer in New York, leveraging his reputation for clever wickedness to his professional advantage. The narrator, Charlie Schuyler, is a young lawyer with literary dreams who is tasked with taking dictation of Burr’s memoirs, but with a hidden agenda. Various political poo-bahs in New York want Charlie to prove that Martin Van Buren, current president Andrew Jackson’s heir apparent, is Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son! Charlie is a somewhat angsty, weak-willed type, so he never quite commits to either Burr or to his handlers, or to the political passions that roil the city, or to anything other than a bad “Captain Save-A-Ho” fantasy in his love life. He’s a good receptacle for Burr’s story. 

Burr details the Revolution, his politicking in New York (he helped found Tammanny Hall, among other deeds), forming the Democratic-Republicans with Jefferson, almost becoming President, fighting the duel with Hamilton, and his shenanigans out west in fine high style. Burr prides himself on being an eighteenth century-style gentleman: urbane, disinterested, something of a scoundrel, adventurous, horny. In this, he sees himself as vastly superior to the rogue’s gallery we call the Founding Fathers: through Burr, Vidal depicts Washington as a vain blunderer with a gigantic ass, Jefferson as a sinister egomaniac who believes his own ever-changing lies, and Hamilton as tragic in large part through his failures to be the upper-class gentleman he desperately aped and sucked up to, despite the talents Burr acknowledged he had. 

In general, Burr and Vidal depict the era of the American founding as less of an epic of genius and more as a rather grubby tale of ego and greed. He reverses most of the conventional valuations of the period, not just about personalities. Burr didn’t mind the Articles of Confederation and saw the Constitution as a scam. Gentlemen as Burr understood them continually lost, and schemers – a class reading would say “proto-bourgeoisie” or vaguely caesarist/ideologue types ala Robespierre and Jefferson – won out. Out of the first five Presidents of the US, Burr has the most time for John Adams, who was at least a straightforward and intelligent opponent, and James Madison, whose brains Burr acknowledges but pities for letting himself become an appendage of Jefferson. 

Jefferson is the heavy for much of the book, and really, he makes a good one. A gentleman is always himself- Jefferson makes himself whatever is convenient for Jefferson. Burr depicts the various twists and turns in Jeffersonian thought — from borderline Rousseauian anarchism when he was in opposition, to interpreting the Constitution to mean he could buy a third of the constitution — as having even less to do with principle than most scholars now, emerging from decades of filiopiety towards the founding fathers, would find in it. Jefferson wanted power, wanted to throw red meat to the mob so they’d approve his tyranny, and only his incompetence — Burr carefully notes his shabby dress, his broken down houses with unworkable “inventions,” his generally ungentlemanly demeanor — kept him from being a Robespierre. 

Burr, for his part, models himself after that other half of the French revolutionary (shitty) outcome coin- Bonaparte. I’ll need to read more of Gore Vidal to really make this call, but in this one, Vidal comes off as squarely an American Bonapartist. It’s not so much that conquering Europe is good. It’s just that out of bad options, a smart dictator is preferable to feeble febrile weirdos like Jefferson. Burr considers himself a gentleman above the democracy- but his honor and good humor doesn’t allow him to despise the people, like Hamilton does openly or Jefferson does on the sly. To the extent Burr had a politics beyond frank (as opposed to secret, hypocritical) self-advancement, it was giving the people what they wanted- glory, conquests and adventures to either participate in or live vicariously through, and beyond that, being allowed to live their little lives in peace and relative prosperity. 

This is where Burr’s western adventures come in. Vidal, contrarian that he is, still can’t quite land on treason as being cool- if nothing else, that would cut across the rep he builds for Burr as being an honest crook. So he doesn’t represent Burr as trying to break off the (then-) western parts of the US as a private empire, or to sell it to Britain or Spain, with which the Jeffersonians accused him. Instead, Burr recounts a somewhat confused but fun tale of trying to gather armies of western pioneer folk to take over Mexico, and make him King or Emperor Aaron. He would have gotten away with it, too, if not for that lousy meddling James Wilkerson! But really, he implies, what gentleman of character wouldn’t want to get out from under Jefferson’s Virginian oligarchy and light out for conquests new?  It’s no coincidence that the major political figure of the time that Vidal paints in a relatively positive light is Andrew Jackson, who, it seems likely, at least paid Burr’s schemes some attention before Burr got pinched. Jackson’s a rougher-hewn, less interesting Burr, as far as Vidal is concerned, the best we’re going to get. But Burr was in Europe for most of Jackson’s career, exiled as a traitor (even if he was cleared by a federal court) and murderer (he argues Hamilton basically set himself up as a martyr for… well, a martyr for the elimination of Aaron Burr from polite society). He can’t get the real Napoleon interested in any schemes, alas, so he slinks back to New York to practice law and romance widows out of their money. 

This book is a little over seven hundred pages in my edition, and quite action packed. Charlie has his own life, involving literary and political intrigue, trying to “redeem” a working girl, and bloody murder, and beyond the political there’s shocking personal revelations about both Charlie and Burr. These are a little less interesting to me, and the big one about Charlie you kind of see coming. Most of these come down to questions of birth legitimacy and illicit love, and you can see why Vidal would incorporate this into his historical vision. The real America, he implies, is the one from the other side of the sheets, not in some Howard Zinn history from below sense (though there’s a soupcon of that), but in the sense of a subversion, sometimes just a plain inversion, of the received story. Burr is a devil figure in the sympathetic version of “Old Nick,” as a gentleman you can rely on to be naughty, and it appears Vidal has taken bits and pieces of old American lore, the Progressive school of history that would have been coming out of favor around the time Vidal was in college, with its emphasis on the venality of the great figures of the American past, some personal grudges (there’s a sort-of funny Buckley pastiche character), and his own interest in transgressive sexuality and behavior to make a sort of devil’s dictionary of American history. I look forward to reading the other installments. ****’

Reviews – Vidal, “Burr”

Review – Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve”

Lili Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.” (2019) (read aloud by Jayme Mattler) – One of the reasons my birthday lecture this year was quite long was because I tried to explain my interests and methods. My chief area of interest is what I call intellectual history in the vernacular- ideas produced, propagated, and/or applied by people outside of the academy and academy-adjacent spaces (establishment literature, etc). I want to get at just not what people believe and why, but how ideas, people, and circumstances interact. I think that to really get a grip on that, it’s imperative for scholars to look beyond histories of academic ideas (as fruitful as such histories often are!). I think you can get a better idea of the dynamics of thought by examining it in the wild, so to speak, in the vernacular.

So, I wind up studying various corners of thought and discourse, from military planning to cults to “extremist” political ideologies to various literary movements. Here’s the thing: the people who write about these things tend to be… enthusiasts. They really love the topic, whatever it is, and feel both giddy liberation and grinding resentment towards “conventional” history for relegating said topic to the margins. They, in short, “geek out.”

I won’t deny that it is fun to dip into the worlds of seventies head scifi writers, backwoods occultists of old upstate New York, and underground fascists, especially when compared with another go-round with the usual cast of characters from Socrates to Foucault. But… I’m here for the relationship of ideas to each other, the dynamics of how they grow, spread, change, die. I’m not here to geek out over the mere existence of weird shit. I know there is such a thing as weird shit. I’ve known that forever. I want to parse it, get what makes it tick. And for the love of the dialectic, I am not looking to get converted to enthusiasm myself, to defend the honor of sovereign citizens, of Rastafarianism, of counterinsurgency theorists, and I’m annoyed when writers imply I ought. Let’s put it this way: I often look to histories of crime for insights into social history and even organizational dynamics, so I get annoyed when books about famous criminals, crimes, or gangs linger on the details of murders and shortchange the social structure and culture questions involved. 

You would be surprised how little sympathy this problem gets, even from friends who are generally “on side.” I have made my peace. 

All that is to say, when someone promises me a “secret history” about a rediscovered cultural figure, my hopes get high despite themselves, and are almost often disappointed. As it happens, I think the author of this “secret history of LA” through the lens of the life of an Angeleno writer/socialite was written by someone who I think has actually done some fine vernacular history. Lili Anolik hosts the “Once Upon A Time…” podcast, which tells interesting stories about recent cultural history with great big heaps of crunchy context, just like I like it. The two seasons so far are “Once Upon a Time in the Valley,” discussing the San Fernando Valley porn industry and the Traci Lords scandal, and “Once Upon a Time at Bennington College,” which focuses on a time at my now-gone alma mater’s soccer rival when three major figures of Generation X literature — Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Donna Tartt — were all on the same freshman class in the eighties. I often disagreed with her stances, and she is no uncertain terms an enthusiast, but that did not impede my enjoyment or the degree of insight gleaned, a rare feat. I eagerly await a third season. 

I also was pretty eager for this book, Anolik’s biography of Eve Babitz. I do love a good, highly-contextual biography, a real “life and times,” and Babitz certainly had a lively life, lived in interesting times. She was a Hollywood brat who started cruising various scenes in the early sixties. Both beautiful — and, reader, both Anolik and her interview subjects talk a lot, a LOT, about Babitz’s breasts and their magnetic quality in particular — and bookish, witty and knowing from an improbably young age, she involved herself in a who’s who of Los Angeles cultural figures between the sixties and the eighties. Artists and rock stars (she was a lover of Jim Morrison’s), movie people and writers (Joan Didion acted as a mentor and eventual enemy), and more than anything just people on the scene — behind the scenes people, hangers-on, dealers, gurus, randos — she knew them all, and they all knew Eve. 

She made art, posed for photos (including a famous one of her playing chess naked with Marcel Duchamp, who was dressed), designed album covers, but her longest-lasting cultural contribution was her writings, short story collections and novels that were more or less “gonzo” or “new journalism” about the scenes she was on but with a shellack of fictional deniability on them. They’ve been getting attention again, with books like “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Slow Days and Fast Company” (the latter is supposedly the best – with my luck, I picked up a remainder of the former before listening to this book), long out of print, getting re-released as NYRB Classics. The imprint is a little ironic- Babitz was always a defender of LA against New York, and New York-based critics often weren’t kind to her. But so it goes! Anolik did a lot to help restore Babitz to the public eye, too, with a big story in Vanity Fair a few years back. 

Part of the story Anolik tells here is about how she tracked Babitz down for her profile. It wasn’t easy. Babitz’s fortunes began a long decline starting in the mid-seventies. She had always used drugs, but lost control over habits. Money troubles mounted and her books both got worse, and less popular. With help from her impressive cast of friends, she was able to keep more or less afloat, until sometime in her fifties she suffered a horrible burn accident, which she miraculously survived but suffered from for the rest of her life. Between this, and the fading of her world, she had become a recluse by the time Anolik found her. Anolik had to bribe Babitz, in her seventies by then, with meals, like a feral animal, to get her to open up, to eventually tell her side of the various stories and sit for the Vanity Fair photographer. Babitz died in 2021. 

Here’s the deal: I like Anolik’s writing. I know she’s capable of telling stories that engage me. But this did not quite click. And I’m aware of the many obvious reasons why it would not. I’m a man, who tends to conceive of his world in political and historical terms, a New Englander, a guy very content to let the culture pass him by and I have been that way the whole time. Eve Babitz was more or less the opposite of that- a woman and one known for her feminine wiles, an aesthete and socialite with almost no interest in politics (apparently she became quite the Fox News junkie in her old age but that’s neither here nor there), Anolik describes her as a true Southern California girl, and someone with her finger on the pulse during a very interesting time. 

Well, I won’t deny that there are aspects of Babitz’s whole thing that strike me as a little trite. But I don’t want everyone to be like me. I like that there’s aesthetically-minded people in the world, people not fretting about power and time, non-depressives! I’m glad not everywhere is New England, and I actually like Los Angeles, for a fairly simple reason: put me anywhere physically safe and with enough resources, and I will find things to do. I’ll find routes to walk (not as impossible in LA as they say- just unpopular), books to read, places to eat and have a beer (I like the food in LA, the burritos, sushi, Korean places). I might even find friends, because, again, I don’t want a whole world of me. I do prefer New England, but that’s mostly because the mental transaction costs are lower. Things make sense here, due to habituation of nothing else. Everywhere, New England very much included, sucks at least a little. 

What it actually is with me and this book, I think, is the point I began with. We actually don’t get a secret history of LA- we don’t get much analysis beyond the idea that Babitz prefigured writers like Bret Easton Ellis (not my favorite), was just as good as Joan Didion (believable, even without having read any extended work of hers yet), and deserves more recognition. To me, the book is strongest when Anolik discusses Babitz’s literary accomplishments (and later, failures). She has a good critical eye, even where I disagree (profoundly, in some cases, like her love for Ellis and disdain for Hunter S. Thompson- more on the latter anon). But she really doesn’t connect it to much other than to Babitz’s personal journey, and to a sort of vague defensiveness — the seemingly inevitable defensiveness in vernacular or simply unusual intellectual or cultural history — that Babitz and her interest in stars, aesthetics, gossip, etc. is just as good as anything else in the sphere of literature, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a lame snob, and likely, a New Yorker. 

It’s less that I disagree with this opinion — I have read no Babitz and cannot say how good she is — but I will say that the conflict Anolik conjures doesn’t interest me much either way. But that would constitute taking a side, I think, as far as the Anolik of this book is concerned, and not the right one. I —should— be interested in Babitz’s personal life, her lovers and friends, her lifestyle, the small LA moments she records etc etc because to do otherwise is to not understand that this is actually the content of literature, and not to face the extinction of various (East Coast-associated) literary verities. Pointlessness is the new having a point. 

Well… let’s put it this way. I’ve been thinking about literary minimalism recently. I don’t know if Babitz counts, but the writers around her whose work I do know, Didion and Ellis, both have substantial minimalist works. As you can tell, I am not a minimalist. I like adjectives, adverbs, asides. I’m fine with long sentences and paragraphs as long as they’re interesting, and to me, insight into a dynamic, preferably one involving power in some way, is more interesting than, I don’t know, what sort of outfits are popular at which Hollywood bar during which summer long before I was born. That being said, I think there’s a time and a place for minimalism. And I think that time and place maps onto when minimalism is important in material objects- to accomplish a purpose, to achieve efficiency and to do so under a variety of circumstances. The smartphone, the katana, the submarine… the literary equivalent of that. Something sufficiently interesting or pointed where you want or need the prose to be completely out of the way. Minimalism is one strategy, I think, to get at things hard to express. Of course, it is also a shortcut for those simply unable to express things to the extent you’d think a professional writer should. I think this is why so often minimalist stories are often about, to borrow a phrase, less than zero. It’s lack of talent, and/or a slothful and vain disdain for an interesting world, masquerading as a considered aesthetic choice. 

It could very well be that Babitz either isn’t a minimalist or is a good one, expressing something ineffable about the lived experience of a place. But the idea that this is what literature should be, and the highest, maybe only thing it can be… that’s a wrong idea, and frankly an ugly one, and I think the ramifications of the idea helped make this book not just “wrong” — that’d be more or less fine — but less engaging than it might otherwise be (it’s still reasonably engaging, for what it’s worth, it’s just that explaining why it fails at times is complicated). Anolik roundly denounces most of Babitz’s peers in the “new journalism” movement. Didion and Capote deserve it, Wolfe deserves more than Anolik dishes out. Hunter Thompson doesn’t, not on literary grounds, and the specific way Anolik denounces Thompson, as someone whose work will prove ephemeral because it concerns the actual history of the period in which he lived, as opposed to, I don’t know, vibes or some shit… that made it very hard to read the rest of this in a generous spirit. 

Anyway, I’m probably making this sound worse than it is. Much of the book is a reasonably engaging narrative about a lady who lived an interesting life that reflected some major social and cultural changes in her time and place. But it is, in its way, representative of some of the challenges of doing the sort of work I do, with the motivations I have. ***’

Review – Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve”