Review – Lerner, “The Topeka School”

Ben Lerner, “The Topeka School” (2019) (read by Peter Berkrot, Nancy Linari, and Tristan Wright) – Well, well! An actually ambitious contemporary literary novel! And it’s… good? Perhaps great? You know, I’m going to go with “it’s great.” Perhaps it’s not for everyone but I thought it was great. Moreover, I “disagreed” with it, to the extent it has a thesis, and still think that! And it’s not even in one of the more-or-less official dissident categories that cranky lefty readers like me are “supposed” to reach out towards- right-wingers (conveniently, usually from outdated flavors of fash), people who are shitheads in their personal lives, etc. No, my disagreement is what seems to be a sort of left-liberal outlook on our current pass, the sort of thing that’s supposed to be poisonous to thinking and writing, in our bestiary. And it’s by a poet whose previous two novels look like the sort of stuff I’d hate, praised by the likes of Jonathan Franzen! But here we are.

This is primarily the story of the Gordons, a transparent and admitted stand-in for the Lerners: an upper-middle class family in Topeka, Kansas at the end of the twentieth century, composed of two psychotherapist parents (the mother is somewhat famous) and a highly successful but neurotic son set to graduate high school in 1997 (apparently there’s a second Lerner brother but he’s nowhere to be found in the Gordons). The stories are mostly told in the past tense, and we linger most with the son, Adam, a high school debate champion who is now a successful novelist and father in Brooklyn. We learn of his parents’ courtship and troubles, their efforts to live a psychoanalytically-informed, lightly culturally liberal life in increasingly conservative Topeka, anchored by a psychological institute that was there (for some reason) and was apparently hot shit between the fifties and the nineties. The present tense stuff we get entails mostly a final chapter, with Adam discussing experiences in contemporary New York, and brief interludes from the perspectives of a high school classmate of his, Darren, who was mentally ill, probably on the autism spectrum, and gets involved in some terrible violence.

What’s so great about “The Topeka School”? It’s an intellectual novel (partially) about intellectual life as lived, and seems to come from an honest place, without self-flattery or its cousin, self-flagellation. The language gets Lerner’s points across with the flourishes one might expect from a poet, but never gets in his way. The characters make sense, and, miraculously for a novel steeped in psychoanalysis, are fleshed out deeply, feel lived in, but that fleshing out is never tedious. It kept my interest. That’s a lot, for a contemporary novel without a genre hook (and for many contemporary novels with such hooks!).

All compliments in the negative, what “The Topeka School” avoids, but there’s positive goods too. I especially enjoyed the painful scenes of Adam’s debate career (there’s another champion debater who writes pretty good contemporary fiction: Sally Rooney). I knew I didn’t care for formal debate. I didn’t realize how much of it involved literally spewing out as many bullshit arguments as quickly as you could, so as to browbeat opponents, to the (adult!) judges approval. Apparently, “Lincoln-Douglas” debates, which prioritize declamation and thoughtfulness over “owning” the other guy, are increasingly popular in scholastic competitive debate, but as Lerner makes clear, determined shitty teen pedants can make those awful, too. Lerner’s good with stuff like that- the feeling of these debates and preparation for them, parties with the gangsta-fied rich white high school kids of suburban Kansas in the late nineties, passive-aggressive scenes between analysts in highly entangled relationships, and other scenes that make one question whether leaving the oceans was a worthwhile choice for terrestrial life.

The debate stuff enters into “the point” of the novel. People say that novels shouldn’t have points, that that should be left to nonfiction, which should in turn be all about the thesis. I almost believe the opposite. Thesis-heavy nonfiction books are often repetitive drags to read. I think a novel that makes an argument can often be fun and can avoid a lot of pitfalls. There are many, many bad examples of pointed novels and pointless nonfiction (and of pointless novels and thesis-heavy nonfiction), I know, but I think at this point one of the problems of anglophone fiction is that it often makes a fetish of pointlessness, or else of points so childlike that they haven’t really got a point to an adult reader (hence, maybe, the rise of an adult YA fiction readership…).

Anyway! The debate stuff is just the most prominent example in “The Topeka School” of characters slipping into non-signifying speech or glossolalia, talking a mile a minute but saying nothing. Teenage Adam goes to a therapist (at his parents’ employer, natch) who plays glossolalia tapes at him to get him to “open up.” Little kid Adam gets a concussion that messes with his memory and speech and gives him migraines for the rest of his life, and his parents witness college-aged Adam slip into nonsense-speak after he gets dumped. His (at the time married) dad has a bad trip on acid when courting his mom in New York in the sixties and loses control of his speech. But the debate stuff above all, and “the spread” — where one debater deluges another in bullshit — is the central metaphor for this problem, for the way language slips the bounds of civilization — of which it is the main support — and threatens to undo all that it’s done, to become a non-communication.

This is relevant, in the Trump years! I think the idea here is that the lives of the Gordons and those around them in the late nineties/early aughts are canaries in the coal mine of a communicative apocalypse that led to Trump, of the meaningful speech that builds society giving way to the glossolalia that is always under the surface. Lerner doesn’t say why, exactly this happens- the internet is an unwelcome, ungemutlich, porn-laden presence, and the fecklessness of the guardians of civil society in the book, the psychologists (including Adam’s parents and a refugee from Nazi Germany), probably doesn’t help. The antidote is to learn to speak together, meaningfully- and here, Lerner cites the Occupy-style “people’s mic,” at the end of the book, where he and his family are protesting ICE and telling off cops who tell his kids not to chalk on the sidewalk.

There’s much to be said about this! I agree with the basic framework of the thesis: there is indeed something different and at the very least unhelpful — perhaps “sinister” and “wrong” are warranted adjectives here — about many characteristic modes of recent discourse compared to discourse within living memory. I disagree with the notion that those who take up so much of public life discoursing in a way orthogonal to what were once commonly (maybe not so commonly?)-held conventions of truth and rationality are practicing glossolalia. Or else, I need to borrow a scene from another novelist who thinks a lot about contemporary communication, and arguably stole a march on Adam/Ben when they were in middle school-

“‘Cut,’ the journalist says, turning into the camera. ‘Just cut. The Babble Brigade has started again.’

“The soundtrack now consists of thousands of people speaking in tongues under the high-pitched, shit-eating chuckles of L. Bob Rife.

“‘This is the miracle of tongues,’ Rife shouts above the tumult. ‘I can understand every word these people are saying. Can you, brother?’”

As a certain clade of my readership will no doubt have caught on, this is from Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash,” a novel with a distinctly mixed reputation these days (I still think it’s good). The basic plot of the book is that Rife, an evangelical billionaire, wants to un-do the sundering of human language effected by the fall of the Tower of Babel (in Stephenson’s telling, a neurolinguistic virus created by Sumerian hackers to overthrow the tyranny of priests and create humans with personality- neuro people and people who know anything about Sumerian are among the major detractors of “Snow Crash”) and with it, the creation of separate languages- and separate human consciousnesses. We can all be a mishmash hive mind gabbing away in tongues, like God intended? The worst thing a hyper-literate nineties edgy dude could imagine (to be fair, I don’t like it either).

The point here isn’t that “Snow Crash” is better or worse than “The Topeka School” (a real apples and oranges comparison), but that Stephenson gets the power equation with language more than Lerner seems to. Rife has a purpose in mind with glossolalia, and he can understand it just fine. It communicates- just in a different mode than the one the protagonists of “Snow Crash” (and the writer and the audience) prefer and have built an existence around. Similarly, Trump may not “make sense” in the way a finely-written essay might, but he absolutely conveys meaning. You can argue that the internet has a higher static-signal ratio, and I think you’d be right, but there’s plenty of message there — hate, lust, desperation, affection for cats — if you listen. You can make use of these communicative techniques to build community, of a sort. I mean, look at this essay, or the rest of my writing- clearly, not my sort of community. But there it is.

Intermittently, Lerner seems to get that, or anyway gets there’s power at work, it’s not just a descent into nothingness. In the last chapter, he encounters a shitty dad of a child misbehaving in a sexist fashion and who won’t do anything about it, and a shitty cop trying to intimidate him and his kids. I think Lerner tries to depict their communications — the dad’s repetitions of cliches and refusal to engage, the cop’s tough guy woofing aimed at children — as part of the decline of speech. But their speech communicates, differently, but clearly. Similarly, he seems to get that the debate glossolalia he once indulged in, practiced like a sport, isn’t value-neutral madness, but a domination ritual. It’s meant to dominate another, and adult judges reward it, see it as grooming for further power positions.

Lerner also discusses hip hop and fighting. In trying to be cool — in Adam’s case, rebelling, before returning to, his parents gentle liberal humanism — the Topeka boys fight a lot, and try to do rap, both supposedly inspired by hip hop culture. Fighting is harsher than it used to be, Lerner argues, due to these white boys taking on hip hop posturing (and watching early televised MMA, with its ground fighting and elbows); attempts at rap were the first real poetry Adam tries, before becoming a renowned poet as an adult. The fighting is seen as entirely negative, a degeneration, a morbid symptom, and that seems reasonably fair. Adam gives his efforts at rap some credit for building his poetical skills, but is sufficiently ironic about his expensively bred white corpus mouthing phrases about bitches and gats so as to see it as basically foolish, a failed communication. Are either failed communications, or are they borrowings to express things that always were there under the surface of the lives of these boys? Is it entirely impossible that they could have found an outlet for their desire for conflict that kept hip hop’s power (and the knowledge that an elbow often does better than a fist at close range) without taking on board dysfunctions?

And then there’s Darren. Darren can’t communicate, never could, except in inept lies and sporadic violence. Adam and his friends intermittently bully him and people at his parents’ center try to treat him. Nothing works. The deck is stacked- broken home, almost certainly some degree of developmental disability, he just never had a chance. Some of the high school seniors start letting Darren hang around, semi-ironically (how often is anything that any privileged teen does entirely sincere?). When it becomes clear they’re playing with him, Darren uses a pool cue to cold-cock a girl. That’s the last we see of him until Adam comes home to Topeka for a poetry reading, and there’s Darren with the Westboro Baptist Church protestors.

This might be the wrongest part of a book the theses of which I have several disagreements. And even here, Lerner’s Darren is still human, thoughtfully portrayed. He’s pitiful and enraging in turn. There’s an interesting discursus Lerner makes on the man-child and his place in middle American life, the way in which that by being the same gender and race of the dominant type of the empire, man-children like Darren are allowed to be mascots, sometimes even muscle for an officially permitted body, in a way women or people of color with similar inability to grow up aren’t. Of course, they always know they’re on the outside… but… the idea that the Darrens of the world represent the Trump base, what happens to us when the communicative bridges collapse… that doesn’t work. WBC muscle, maybe, but not the Trump base. That’s more like the cop, or the shitty office worker dad, Lerner encounters in the end. My take is that Lerner is smart and perceptive enough to write his way into the mind of a loser enough to get us to believe him, but not enough to really get what makes those losers — or the worlds made by people cynically appealing to senses of inarticulate loss and rage — what they are. They’re just a mystery. You know how “serious” novelists love their unsolvable mysteries.

Well… I think that’s a fine position for a novelist, as long as they’ve got the chops to back it up. I’m dedicated to not treating these things like a mystery, and I’m not at all certain I’ll succeed! Moreover, if we’re writing passes for Celine, Kipling, Mishima (do we write passes for writers who co-signed or lied about communist atrocities, or is it either we pretend they didn’t on the left and the right and the center never forgives them? Asking for a friend), Norman Mailer, and so on, we can allow that a liberal with some mildly useless liberal opinions can write a great novel expressing those opinions, especially when there’s a lot else going on in said novel. That’s what Lerner accomplished here. Five stars? Ding half a star for liberalism? Fuck it, no. Five stars! *****

Review – Lerner, “The Topeka School”

Review – Corey, “Tiamat’s Wrath”

James S.A. Corey, “Tiamat’s Wrath” (2019) (read by Jefferson Mays) – It’s hard not to come to a book with preconceived notions of how it’ll be, harder still when you read (in this case, listened to) seven of its series predecessors in a given calendar year. Somehow, I got it in my head that the Expanse series picks up after a nadir of boredom and pointless a book or two back. Maybe it does, some, but that preconception took some hard knocks while listening to this, the most current and penultimate Expanse novel (there’s another one coming at the end of next month, and yes, I’ll probably listen to it- might as well finish the damn thing, I’ve come this far).

There’s some cool stuff here. The scientist Elvi, from several books back, comes back and discovers a diamond the size of a star, some sort of enormous memory bank for the civilization that built the ring-gate network that has given humanity a set of shortcuts across the galaxy. The Laconians, a sort of paramilitary that took over humanity a few books back, try to blow it up, on the idea that could draw a response from some of the ancient godlike aliens that created the gates and/or killed the gate-creators, thereby opening a comms channel. It causes some freaky, time-dilating disasters. That’s kind of interesting.

But at the end of the day the book has more to do with the maneuverings and relations of boring characters than it does with cool space stuff. We gotta see what the space-dullards we’ve spent thousands and thousands of pages are up to! They’re resisting Laconia, duh, and the Laconians become more obviously evil, definitely non-preferable to whatever workaday exploiters the solar system previously had, confirming the good moral sense of Naomi, Alex, Bobbie and the gang. Chief perspective-dullard Holden, a real Harry Potter of a narrator but with all too many parents instead of too few, is at the center of the action, naturally, even though he’s supposed to be in exile. They do some resistance stuff and save some kids. One of the gang gets pseudo-alien-zombified, if you’ve played the classic RPG Deadlands think “harrowed” but scifi rather than horror-western themed. There’s some palace intrigue with a teenage girl and heir to the empire, which could be a cool concept but the Coreys (it’s a house name for two guys) are kind of phoning it in at this point. At least, unlike their maitre George R.R. Martin, they seem likely to finish their series.

By the end of it, the Laconian grip is tenuous, shit is all kinds of fucked, and it seems likely there will be a showdown between humanity and the alien god-killers that the Laconians provoked. I’ll say it- other than bare curiosity about where the genre is going, I will only care about the last installment, “Leviathan Falls” (recalling the title of the first book!! So long ago), if shit gets good and freaky with these aliens. And I want to — see — these fuckers, at least their ships. The Coreys aren’t Liu Cixin, they don’t get to keep the aliens offscreen (well, they’re nerd-famous, they could probably “get to” scribble their characters names onto the screenplay of “Serenity,” publish it, and make millions, but you know). For now, this was a diverting but mediocre read that promises more than it delivers, though this many books in, it’s more my fault than anybody else’s for buying. ***’

Review – Corey, “Tiamat’s Wrath”

Review – Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders”

My Elvis photo wouldn’t upload so here’s a picture of Mithra

Grace Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America” (2011) – This is a reasonably strongly argued book about an interesting subject that I think gets some important things wrong. It asks bigger questions and ranges more widely than is typical for academic works of American history these days. It’s all there in that sentence-length subtitle: how did rebellion become as popular of a cultural stance as it became, especially among a group of people — young middle class whites — who had seemingly every reason to like the postwar order that had showered them with then-unheard of prosperity and freedom?

This isn’t an especially thesis-heavy book- another departure from trends in its space, and for the most part a good one. Hale takes us through various cultural manifestations of rebellion that appealed to white kids between the late forties and the early eighties: “Catcher in the Rye,” folk music, the beat poets, the new conservatism, evangelicalism both of the hippie-fied “Jesus Freak” variety and the more conservative type that the former usually congealed into anyway. In almost all instances, rebellion as an existential posture becomes detached from stable political or social meanings in all of these instances, usually well before they gain mass popularity. These things become politically polysemous, moving people left and right simultaneously in some cases, and most often depoliticizing people by upholding personal authenticity over mass confrontation of power.

So far, so good- it’s funny, in the introduction she specifically cites Tom Frank as one of the people she’s attempting to critique by making more space in her work for genuine rebelliousness of subcultures than he ever did, but several of these chapters could be Baffler articles. That said, I am getting a little tired of this mode and line of inquiry. It’s not like I’ve grown more sanguine about subcultural rebellion as a political force. I just think there’s limits to the story of the late twentieth century’s failed subcultural rebels in terms of explanatory power. But hey- I picked up this book and so knew what it was about. I just thought Hale, the well-respected academic historian, would ask more interesting and thoroughgoing questions than Frank the polemicist. She only did intermittently, and some of the answers were real head-scratchers.

Hale’s first chapter, on folk music, is probably the best, most ambitious, and most closely-argued chapter in the book. She makes some ambitious claims about the nature of performance always angling either for transformation or transcendence. Both imply an escape from self, one by temporarily becoming something else, the other by permanently escaping the plane of selfhood more generally. Heady stuff! She brings some of the cultural historical work about minstrelsy that made such a stir earlier in the millennium into the mix. Minstrelsy was about a lot of things, much of that work argued and Hale does too, but formally it was about transforming on stage, playing with identity and trying on being someone else. Mutatis mutandis, this is also what the folk revivalists of the fifties and sixties did, in Hale’s telling. In our argot, they LARPed being black bluesmen, Appalachia hill folks, rural girls moved to factory towns and singing their laments. Beats and “white negros” ala Norman Mailer did something similar- sought out a mode of rebellion through identity play. All of them, in Hale’s telling, over-complicated matters with authenticity politics — folkies looking for “the real” folk music, despite being New Yorkers with working running water — perhaps a legacy from folk revivalism’s roots in both right- and left-leaning political-cultural projects. But by the time Bob Dylan showed there was fame and money in eschewing all the authenticity stuff — that you could be “authentic” by just being yourself, however contrived that self was, i.e. started selling transcendence — the generation he spoke for was primed for the message.

I think there’s a lot of insight there. I’m also uncomfortable with the way the argument — I get the idea that a lot of arguments in this space do this — seems to relativize the dehumanizing aspects of minstrelsy while simultaneously spreading its logic across the range of pop culture history (and present). Like… blackface was fucked up. I get that it was popular and influential. I get that there’s no neat dividing line between the forms minstrelsy informed, from jazz to cartooning, and minstrelsy. I get that many pop performers, black ones included, continued, and continue, to sell an image of blackness for white consumption after blackface went out of style. But I kind of figure, you know, not painting your face and bugging your eyes out in a cruel dehumanizing parody has to be kind of an important distinction? Like, there was nothing stopping white kids from seeking that out and doing it, as indeed numerous pictures from fraternity parties will affirm, if that’s what it was all about. I think there’s enough of a difference that we can’t just port the logic over to the long history of the blues and from there to it’s fans. Among other things, it seems impossible to enjoy minstrelsy without enjoying its cruelty or partaking of its transformative elements (or more likely, both). That’s not the same with folk or blues (or hip hop, to use another music often put into the same category).

These category confusions and odd, odd conflations dog the work into later and generally less coherent chapters. They become especially tricky when we get into political organizers on both the left and the right. I get that the middle class white kids in SDS were often stupid about race and achingly naive and earnest about seeking personal meaning through community politics. But if you’re going to center your argument about the group on feelings, like the “falling in love” with a certain picture of black and/or working class authenticity that Hale had them experience (based on their letters, admittedly), you need more theoretical fuel in the tank than Hale has in order to explore what that means, otherwise you wind up with “Tom Hayden et al caught feelings, rendering their organizing invalid.” It’s pretty weird to me that she seems almost more to see William Buckley, who far and wide depicted himself as a “revolutionary” against stultifying consensus liberalism, as a more legit rebel than the SDS kids. Or rather, since it was all emotive, performative garbage, easily appropriated by either the right or the left, Buckley wins by being palpably insincere, not woundedly, childishly open and sincere but still tripping over their own dick ala Hayden or Joan Baez.

It gets extra weird when Hale tries to assign political valence, or a lack thereof, to acts of rebellion- or maybe this is just me being sensitive about depictions of Hunter S. Thompson, a writer I admire (I’m also a white blues fan, so). Hale basically tries to wedge Thompson into a Jon Stewart-era version of left-liberalism, fails due to Thompson’s sense of humor, love of guns, and lack of interest in government regulation, and thereby declares him and his rebellions as politically ambiguous. I get that right-wingers can and have admired Thompson and hijacked his work. But his own opinions were clear, and it’s anachronism to claim them for anything other than (an arguably under-theorized, homegrown version of) the left- of fighting power and distributing it downwards. He probably wasn’t the best role model as an organizer, but, and I say this as something of an organizing snob… a lot of people weren’t, back then, including organizers who became legends. And the only thing Thompson wanted to be was a writer, not an organizer.

Basically, I think my problem here is that Hale hits on close to home targets, but doesn’t really hit them that well. The blues/folk/blackface stuff is at least pretty sophisticated abd deeply read, even if I think she basically pursued a blind alley- it was a popular one, for a while, might still be around Culture Studies, if that’s still a thing (“in this economy?!”). I think she would need considerably better definitions of terms and more sensitive readings, though, to render SDS and YDF equally emotive and useless, and to make HST — a guy who shot himself to death in part because his country re-elected George W. Bush — a right-winger. I’m making this book sound like it’s awful. It’s not! Especially the stuff on folk authenticity politics and the Jesus Freak movement is pretty good, and shows a sophistication that seems to disappear in other areas. It’s odd! But I don’t know… still basically mostly good even if I disagree with it? ****

Review – Hale, “A Nation of Outsiders”

Review – Houellebecq, “Serotonin”

Michel Houellebecq, “Serotonin” (2019) (translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside) – I have a little test I like to subject contemporary literature to; I call it The Hook Test. I take a novel about the muddle of contemporary identity — who are we? what does contemporary society/technology etc mean for our senses of self? Is sincerity and/or happiness possible or even desirable, and under what conditions? on and on — and I read it, and then I ask myself: “did this novel say anything about its subject that noted nineties band Blues Traveler didn’t say better, more succinctly and with more effective imagery in their 1994 hit ‘Hook’? Is there any way in which this novel (usually at least a hundred pages and several hours worth of reading time) is actually superior to the three-minute pop song by a band I can tolerate but do not love? Did the expensively-educated litterateur have anything to offer next to the New School dropout and libertarian who makes irresponsible decisions about crossbows, besides, of course, the class cachet of being seen with a literary novel?”

As you can probably tell, I find most contemporary literary writers fail that test. Jonathan Franzen, Sheila Heti, Lauren Oyler, Karl-Ove Knausgaard, Tao LinJeffrey Eugenides, Otessa Moshfegh, Bret Easton Ellis, Teju Cole- not one of them beats that fat dude from the nineties, as far as I’m concerned, not in substance and frankly not in style, either, though jam bands really aren’t my thing. I am more impressed with what Blues Traveler did than with that list, and you have to figure it includes some future Nobel laureates. I don’t think Blues Traveler said anything really profound in “Hook.” They just illuminated some aspects of contemporary life (and what does it say that we’re still dealing with the same bullshit, in more or less the same frames just with more bandwidth, as a pop song from 1994?) in a reasonably succinct, witty way, and showed some chops in doing so- not anyone could have played that song the same way. People paid a lot of money and given a lot of respect — to say nothing of space, hundreds of pages versus a few minutes — to say something about the same subjects that kind of lame band took on fail to do that.

Interestingly, I can think of one contemporary writer who has both passed and failed The Hook Test: Michel Houellebecq. He passed it with “The Elementary Particles” and “The Possibility of an Island.” From where I sit, he barely cleared the bar with “The Map and the Territory.” But to the extent “Submission” was about contemporary identity and not just a thought experiment/sexual fantasy, it fails the test. And his latest, “Serotonin,” undoubtedly enters into the same space as “Hook” and it fails next to it big time, as ignominiously as Knausgaard or Cole (if not as crashingly bad as Franzen or Oyler).

This sucks, for a few reasons. It sucks because “Serotonin” was not an enjoyable read, obviously. It sucks because Houellebecq can do better, or could, anyway, almost twenty years ago now. It also sucks because Houellebecq was, arguably, the last of the great right-wing writers. There used to be a lot of them- you really can’t appreciate any aspect of modern culture, including both popular and “literary” writing, without at least respecting what artists from the right brought to the table (or, for that matter, artists who cheered on the depredations of any communist tyrant you care to name). I did a whole YouTube video about it! And named Houellebecq as one of three remaining good right-wing fiction writers, and the only one who came from “literary” fiction (though his best work uses a lot of scifi elements). I guess there isn’t really much reason to lament the breed going extinct, except that it’s a bad weather sign for where both literature and the right are going. But I still find it a bummer in and of itself.

That said, it’s worth noting here that the critics are all wrong to say that “Serotonin” is some big deal political novel, a cri de coeur from the euroskeptic right. The book mostly deals with the inner life of Florent-Claude, a sad agriculture bureaucrat. And by inner life, I mostly mean how he’s lonely and horny and nothing makes him happy. Florent-Claude’s love and sex life are considerably more exciting than one would think, from that description- I wonder if that’s down to national differences, no one would write an American sad sack lamenting his life with a sexy younger (Asian, because why not) girlfriend, or the many passionate and highly erotic love affairs he had before then, if they really wanted to get quotidian desperation across. All that’s a problem for rock stars and, I guess, Frenchmen.

Florent-Claude ghosts the sexy Asian lady, tries some antidepressants, and wanders around France trying to find people from his past. He finds an old friend from agricultural college who’s descended from the Norman aristocracy and who’s trying to make a go of it farming his ancestral land. This is where the politics supposedly enters into things. Global competition and EU rules — which Florent-Claude helped implement in his capacity as a bureaucrat — are strangling the traditional agricultural class of France. These same forces created the anodyne world in which Florent-Claude cannot help but feel inauthentic and unhappy. You can’t lead a simple life in a nice rural space with its own peculiar cheeses and stuff anymore!

That’s a big part of it, for the French, and the differences between the French vision of a disappearing good life and the American provided most of the interest that Houellebecq failed to give this book. The big thing with the French is local peculiarity. This mostly comes out in consumables- unique cheeses and wines and stuff for each region or even each town. You need a highly sensitive sensibility to care about that stuff, to be able to tell the difference between “traditionally” made cheeses and ones that cut corners. When Americans talk about “local tradition” they usually mean “will the federal government make us stop treating people like animals.” The good life as understood by Americans accepts — demands — a much greater degree of homogeneity, less sensibility. Arguably, America won the Cold War with the promise of refrigerators and dishwashers, the same in millions of identical, but gleaming clean, kitchens on tv (well, death squads too, can’t forget the death squads). Some people — parts of our own bourgeoisie, too — try to figure out how to have all that nice stuff plus, like, bespoke local dairy products. It’s a balancing act and takes a lot of resources, and it’s no guarantee small producers will win out.

Anyway, Florent-Claude hangs out in rural Normandy, accidentally happens upon a German pedophile, and witnesses his Norman friend and some of their friends do a last stand for protectionism of their dairy products, which culminates in some gun violence. F-C then encounters an ex with a kid, has a big sad, keeps taking antidepressants, throws a rhetorical bone to Jesus who he doesn’t believe in (maybe Houellebecq will pull a Huysmans — we know he’s a fan — and go super-Catholic?), considers suicide, then that’s it, book over. People were like “omfg he predicted the gilles jaunes!” “Serotonin” was written before those started but published after. I don’t know, I was under the impression the French did a lot of protests like that? Some critic somewhere said something like “Steve Bannon could have written this book.” Maybe- you’d figure in speech, at least, Bannon would have gotten to the political juice earlier, not maundered about women and impotence so much, but he’s also dumb and a middle aged man, so who knows?

It increasingly seems like Houellebecq could pass the Hook Test, back when he could, by an old litfic technique- lean on genre. “The Elementary Particles” and “The Possibility of an Island” both had strong scifi elements. There was all the same alienation from contemporary society, the “decline of the west” stuff, the provocations and casual sexism, but there was also more stuff to pay attention to. I didn’t want to believe this would happen, but at this point, Houellebecq really does read like a grayer-toned and smarter version of the authenticity-ponderers that are his anglophone contemporaries. Why shouldn’t he? It’s not like he gives a shit- presumably he just writes for money and/or some little attention-high, that’s the vision of the world he promulgates in his books, anyway. This is less of a waste of time than a lot of other contemporary litfic. Houellebecq is intermittently capable of honesty and close observation, more than the Hetis and Eugenideses of the world. But the fact I’d even put him
in that space is a bad sign. That’s what makes this book hard to read at times, not the same provocations Houellebecq’s been doing since people thought John Edwards might be President someday. **’

Review – Houellebecq, “Serotonin”

Review – Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm”

Stella Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932) – It seems like parody should not be able to outlive its reference point in memory, but clearly that’s not the case. Think of all the stuff Looney Tunes lampooned, stuff kids wouldn’t know about. It’s not just that Looney Tunes was funny even if you didn’t know the reference points (though it was)- it’s that you can tell they’re lampooning something, something from the adult world, maybe something you’ve had some intimation exists, like opera or classic movie stars, or maybe not; either way, that sense makes it funnier.

Stella Gibbons wrote a bunch of books in her time but only one that anyone remembers (this irked her throughout her life, apparently): “Cold Comfort Farm,” a parody of a form that on the surface, doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. These were the “loam and lovechild” novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where sad salt of the earth types suffer in the English countryside. When people cite examples of this subgenre, some big names like Tom Hardy and D.H. Lawrence come up, but they always had other stuff going on in their books- mostly, Gibbons seemed to be aiming at writers, many of them women, who were highly popular at the time but utterly obscure now.

“Cold Comfort Farm” probably has something to do with that obscurity, because it was a huge hit and still a cult favorite, well after the “loam and lovechild” genre has vanished (I assume it has? Let me know if it hasn’t!). The narrator, Flora Poste, is an interesting, and I thought quite contemporary, in a prophetic way, type: the young woman who is over it all but still in the thick of it, too smart for just about anything, including being too smart for stuff. Her parents die — she’s not too bummed, this takes place in some sort of parody future of late imperial Britain, all her parents and lovers are off managing the empire — and she has to go live with relatives. The most palatable of bad options is Cold Comfort Farm, off in Sussex.

It’s grim! Run down, full of almost Dunwich/Innsmouth-style subhumans, a clan of them kept in place by Great Aunt Ada Doom (who saw something nasty in the woodshed as a child). There’s intimations of deep trauma and doom, boundedness to the lousy East Anglian soil, purple speeches (in the style of the novels Gibbons is lampooning) set off by asterisks, a lot of dialect, etc. As a project, Flora decides to straighten things out around there.

Gibbons makes the book funny despite my not knowing the source material. What she doesn’t manage — what I think she couldn’t even try within the bounds of her project — is to make a compelling plot. Flora just does things. She faces little opposition to her polite optimistic pushiness beyond some caviling. She dresses up the wild girl wandering the moors in the latest London fashion and sets her up with the squire’s son, who just needs a little encouragement to do right by her. She gets rid of evangelical Uncle Amos by telling him about the soul-saving potential of taking his hellfire preaching show on the road in a Ford van, thereby letting cousin Rueben take over the farm, the one thing he wants. She foists vain fuckboy Seth on Hollywood, thereby bringing some money to the farm and keeping him from impregnating all the help. Ada Doom wants to stop everyone from leaving but she can’t. The end.

It has to be this way, because the whole thesis of the novel is that the problems of the “loam and lovechild” tragic novels aren’t real problems. They say you have to love a genre to do a good parody of it. I think that’s an American thing. Brits are meaner. Gibbons, I think, didn’t love these books, and she was out for blood, and she got it. If the local yokels could offer opposition — if their problems were even difficult to manage — that would, backhandedly, pay homage to the subgenre Gibbons was determined to skewer. So! It’s a fun novel. The writing is good. It’s funny. It’s a little boring once you get what’s going on. I bet it would have made a good cartoon! ****

Review – Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm”

Review – Burnham, “The Managerial Society”

James Burnham, “The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World” (1941) – Who does half smart like a renegade Trotskyite? From what I can tell of his biography, James Burnham didn’t come to Trotskyism the way you think a political figure born in the first decade of the twentieth century might- after becoming a communist and growing disgusted by Stalinism. No, he went in for Trotskyism directly as a young man, even got to know Leon Trotsky a little. He was a bright young intellectual New Yorker with an eye for power, and something told him Trotskyism was it. This isn’t a diss on Trotsky or his ideology, but on Burnham, when I say that shows he wasn’t as bright as he thought he was. There could be an infinity of reasons to become a Trotskyite and power ain’t one.

I guess Burnham figured that out and went all the way rogue by the time he published this in 1941. “The Managerial Revolution” proceeds according to a parody of the ruthless logic of the two figures Burnham most cribbed from, Trotsky and more than his old mentor Machiavelli. He somewhat gets the ruthlessness, performs it well enough for his audience of little magazine readers (back when little magazines were bigger). The logic eludes him. He tracks a real change in the world but gets the valences wrong, and makes classic mistakes like putting too many chips on prognostications that would play out while he still lived. Above all, he makes the classic mistake of assuming everyone — everyone with thinking about, anyway — thinks like him, all schemes, power, maps, org charts.

The basic point is simple enough- capitalism will be replaced, is being replaced as Burnham writes, by managerialism. Capitalism was/is rule by the bourgeoisie, defined by ownership of capital; managerialism is rule by managers, defined by their managing complex enterprises. Increasing size and complexity of organizations, along with the failures of capitalism, made the rise of the managers inevitable. Governments would be their tool- state management of the economy obviously being more efficient, as shown by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the New Dealers or some other bunch would show the way in America and that would be that for capitalism. In keeping with his Machiavelli schtick, “this isn’t how I like it, it’s just how it is,” Burnham repeatedly avers throughout the book.

The rise of management as a field, separate from ownership, is an important phenomenon and it’s well worth thinking about what it does to the class dynamic. That said, it seems people who think about it too much tend to overdramatize it- not just Burnham, also thinking here of the people who took the discourse of the “professional managerial class” from Milovan Djilas’ Yugoslavia to dirtbag left podcasts. It makes sense. Managers are bosses in a way owners don’t have to be, and bosses are annoying. But managers weren’t just annoying in Burnham’s time- they seemed like the future. All the stuff you could do with big bureaucracies, with the technology that you needed experts to invent and maintain and bureaucracies to direct, it was all over the place at the time. 1941 is also when the Nazis seemed at their most impressive, post taking over France, pre-Stalingrad.

You still need big bureaucracies and institutions to do a lot of things. Managers, their thought and their place in the class structure, are still important. But it seems like Burnham committed the classic mistake of assuming a static set of subject and object relations (which Machiavelli generally did not- and neither did Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky). Capitalism has proven quite capable of incorporating the wants and needs of managers, who displayed little in the way of class consciousness- what little they had aimed down, not up. Owners haven’t completely ceded the field of management yet. And while they wouldn’t exist without big complex institutions like governments and investment banks behind them, Burnham lived to see that small enterprises, like tech companies, could accomplish a lot. Indeed, the moral/political core of a lot of technical/organizational thought that came after Burnham ignored class distinctions in favor of thinking about whether technologies trended big — think steel foundries or auto manufacturing plants — or small: personal computers and the acid blotter (not that the former work without microprocessors made in giant expensive plants but that’s design thought for you).

Burnham would continue his rightward trajectory into friendship with William Buckley and become an editor at National Review. You have to wonder what ol’ Bill thought of this guy and his rejection of the free market- my understanding is that he didn’t come around to liberal economics for quite some time. I guess “anticommunism makes strange bedfellows,” as James Ellroy said. Or maybe not so strange. The managerialism critique, the idea that our capitalism isn’t really capitalism, that it’s some imposter just pretending, has a powerful attraction on defenders of capitalism tasked with explaining the system’s failures. It’s really the fault of — those people — who think they’re so damned smart, that they can just manage everything, not anything wrong with the system… this has legs, both for standard conservatives and for those who make the leap of “those people” meaning “the Jews.”

In any event, Burnham’s radical years left him with enough rigor to make this less painful to read than a lot of my readings on the right. I could follow along with it relatively well even when he was crashingly wrong, like predicting an Axis victory. It’s more of an odd artifact, the granddaddy of a meme that blobs around the noosphere, acting as a placeholder for critical thought, than anything insightful on its own. ***’

Review – Burnham, “The Managerial Society”

Review – Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power”

William Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single Nazi Town, 1922-1945” (1965) – The town of Northeim is more or less smack dab in the middle of Germany, in what’s now Lower Saxony and what used to be the Kingdom of Hanover. Historian William Allen insisted that Northeim was not truly “average,” whatever that would mean for a town. But Northeim was typical enough for Allen to use it as the basis for this social history/historical sociology of Nazism, especially focused on how the Nazis took power. Apparently when this book was first published in the sixties, they gave it a fake name? But now it’s just Northeim.

With Teutonic thoroughness the inhabitants of Northeim kept meeting notes of their various parties and associations, newspaper archives, diaries and so on, for nosy Americans to eventually mine and figure out what’s wrong with them. At first, Northeim seemed about as good of a Weimar-era town as you were going to get. There was a little freikorps versus communist action early on after the war, but after that, things settled down. The working people — Northeim was a railroad town — supported the Social Democrats, the burgers supported various burger parties from weird Hanoverian particularists to the People’s Party. They didn’t get along, didn’t really interact, but the SPD was determined to make a go of this parliamentary governance thing and for the time being so were most of the others.

The Northeim Nazis, as Allen depicts them, possessed a deadly combination of traits that no one saw until it was too late: an ability to play to the deep loyalties of most Northeimers, especially religion and nationalism; and a complete dedication to winning power at almost any cost. Those two went together- Girmann, the local Nazi chief, despised religion but was perfectly happy courting the town’s influential Lutheran clergy… until he was in power and didn’t need them anymore. There was seemingly no limit, ideological or practical, that the Nazis set on themselves, in the way both the bourgeois parties and the Social Democrats did (the Communists enter into the story of Northeim too late and in too small numbers to really compete as they did in other parts of Germany). I do wonder if that would have applied to compromising the core of Nazism, antisemitism, but Northeim had few Jews and according to Allen, antisemitism was not a major part of their campaign to win the town over.

In Northeim, two forces could have stopped the Nazis. One was the petty bourgeoisie letting the Nazis in and giving them cover. The original leadership of the local Nazis consisted mostly of small business types, clerks, minor professionals and the like. The higher ranks of burgerdom in the town didn’t necessarily like the Nazis, but they didn’t hate them enough to expel them, giving them a foothold- and plenty of them liked the idea of a counter to “the reds.” That would be the other force that could have stopped the Nazis, the SPD. They had a well-organized militia in the town, the Reichsbanner, that successfully fought the Nazis several times in street battles. But they never got the call to arms to really go out and deal with the Nazis. That would have had to come from above. The national SPD, committed to parliamentary democracy as the way forward and terrified of more radical forces to their left and their right, wasn’t about to give the order. Redline after redline passed, until in 1933 it was too late.

The Depression opened the door to the Nazis, in Northeim as elsewhere in Germany, but not in the way one would think. The unemployed didn’t stream into the ranks of the Nazis- maybe a few did, but most either went Communist or just didn’t vote. The Depression didn’t gut local businesses, either- the railroad held on, and so did the businesses that serviced it. It was, again, the ordinary townsfolk of Northeim and especially the bourgeoisie (and farmers) who saw some unemployed people and strikes and decided that what was needed was order. Someone needed to bang heads and make things go right, and the Nazis promised to do that. Especially with the SPD chained to failed Weimar policies, including supporting borderline dictators like Schleicher and Hindenburg, the alternatives were dim, not like the local burgers were going to cross over to even “reds” as dim as the SPD at that time.

It turned out that the Northeimers liked the parts of Nazism that aped things that were popular everywhere, including New Deal America- public spending to put people back to work and slap up some fresh coats of paint. They could assent to the mass public rituals they were expected to participate in, and didn’t seem to much miss their free associational life. They grew tired of the Nazis, Allen shows in the short last part of the book, which covers the actual Nazi regime. They didn’t like being bullied by gangster-ish randos like Girmann, but by then it was too late, and the habit of obedience to those who summoned up the values of the fatherland smoothed the rest of the way to 1945. I wonder if any Northeimers were with the SS, and if their idea of Nazism, the war, and what it meant might be different. The East really was where Nazism expressed itself fully.

The decent people had to stop the Nazis, Allen declares at the end. True, I suppose, but what makes somebody “decent?” It seems that Allen mostly meant “willing to color inside the lines of bourgeois democracy.” Maybe if he meant “committed to … bourgeois democracy” it might make more sense, but that would be a much smaller number of Northeimers, including many allowed in all socially “decent” homes. It might basically have just been the SPD and a few nice liberals, and could they have stood against the reactionary elements of the area? I don’t think Allen set out to reinforce the class war elements of the rise of fascism, but he was an honest enough historian that he couldn’t help it. Moral of the story, you can’t trust the bourgeoisie to keep the Nazis at bay, and you probably can’t trust socialist parties participating in bourgeois democracy to do it either? Robust popular organs of self-defense, I guess, is what it comes down to, if you can’t prevent the conditions that give rise to Nazis- and robust popular organizations generally help prevent those conditions, too. ****’

Review – Allen, “The Nazi Seizure of Power”

Review – Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society”

Nicole Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age” (2020) (read by Linda Bevilacqua Farber) – Former Jacobin editor (and friend of mine!) Nicole Aschoff tries to get us past proclamations of doom, utopian nonsense, and “what’s the deeeeeal with phones?!”-level analysis in this work of popular sociology. Fun fact- the last event I had scheduled before covid was her (cancelled) book launch!

The smartphone is a big goddamned deal, arguably a bigger deal than the personal computer (except there wouldn’t be the former without the latter), and we dismiss that at our peril. It serves many functions, and moreover combines functions, in a tiny, portable, relatively affordable package, that genuinely does change the way we do a lot of things. Aschoff discusses some of these- dating, work, politics.

But she doesn’t leave off at either the possibilities that smartphones present at the moment (filming cops!), or their dangers (the Uber-fication of labor!). If there’s a target in this book, it is technological determinism, in either its utopian or dystopian guise. It is true that the shape of the smartphone’s functions, like that of any important technology, shapes society. But it’s also true that society — and social power, who wields it and to what ends — shapes how we use the smartphone.

Right now, that power is squarely in the hands of a coalition of Silicon Valley giants and major governments, and loaned out to other employers. The smartphone, in its current use pattern, empowers the powerful more than it does the powerless (though it does help the latter in a number of instances). The smartphone is a powerful tool in their hands to further their goal of instantiating a data-driven hypercapitalist hellscape.

There’s some interesting stuff here on “spirits of capitalism.” I know Aschoff is a big Luc Boltanski reader based on reading her earlier work, and his thesis that neoliberalism ushered in a “new spirit of capitalism” to replace Weber’s crusty Protestant ethic (NOT “Protestant work ethic,” a phrase which drives me up the wall). Aschoff argues we need a new spirit to envision a future where technology works for us. It would have been interesting to have gotten more on that — Marxist and Weberian insights mix in interesting and volatile ways, people on both sides (well, in my experience, more the Marxist side, but I know more Marxists) often treat the other as verboten — and what it might mean for leftist praxis. But I also understand Nicole wanted to write an approachable, short book.

For all the ways smartphones keep us hooked to the bosses and their values, disconnecting from our phones, while it may be useful (even necessary) for some, isn’t really a good option if we are going to redistribute power downwards. Instead, we need organization- and there’s an extent to which smartphones can help with that. Realistic perspectives on technology, not mythology, needs to guide our organizing understanding if we’re going to seize power and if we’re going to use it sensibly when we’ve got it. We can’t ignore it on the idea it’s not “real politics,” and we certainly can’t buy utopian promises of it eliminating politics. When the power is in our hands, we can use (and, if needs be, limit the excesses of) our technologies for the common good. ****’

Review – Aschoff, “The Smartphone Society”

Review – Huysmans, “Là-Bas”

J.K. Huysmans, “Là-Bas” (1891) (translated from the French by Keene Wallace) – Joris-Karl Huysmans served for respectable decades as a civil servant and wrote decadent novels in his spare time, until he converted to Catholicism and wrote sufficiently Catholic novels to generate enough sales to quit his day job. That sums a lot of it up, right there. My understanding is that Huysmans didn’t see himself as a decadent- he lived a simple bachelor lifestyle, and started out his literary career as a Zola-style naturalist. But disdain for his time and place — late nineteenth century France — and a fascination with the wicked led him to decadent literature, first with “A Rebours,” easily the most important literary novel of interior decoration going, and this novel about satanism. Huysmans wasn’t an aesthete dandy, like the main character in “A Rebours,” and like his narrator in “Là-Bas,” he never became a satanist. He liked to watch, especially things that either confirmed his disdain for his times, transcended it, or both.

“Là-Bas” contains elements of what would become the genres of horror and crime fiction, as bored writer Durtal, lackadaisically finishing a book on medieval serial killer Gilles de Rais, decides he needs to find some real devil-worshippers, “for research,” of course. A lot of the novel is Durtal kicking it with his doctor friend Des Hermies (interesting name) who knows a lot about the occult, and a humble church bell-ringer named Carhaix, who represents a (mildly patronizing) picture of the vanishing “good Catholic” of France, someone with a downright medieval level of devotion. They’re joined by their hatred of the (supposed) mediocrity and corruption of their era. The Middle Ages were a better time, they declare, though with much more Gallic irony and acceptance of things like squalor and foolishness — Durtal and Des Hermies disregard much of what the church actually says — than you get with a lot of medieval nostalgists. But how are these three going to find the black mass Durtal wants to see (Des Hermies is too “over it” to bother and Carhaix is too much the good simple Catholic)?

“Cherchez la femme” as a roughly contemporary Francophone literary figure would have it- Durtal starts getting anonymous horny letters. A little detective work reveals they come from Madame Chantelouve, the wife of a literary Catholic friend. In keeping with his then-contemporary neuroticism, Durtal can’t decide whether he wants to go through with an affair or not, but once he finds out that Chantelouve has connections with the biggest contemporary Satanist, a real bad dude. Eventually, she leads him to a black mass- Durtal, naturally, doesn’t participate, just watches. This scene, along with the recitations of Gilles de Rais’s murderous career, are what put “Là-Bas” on the censor’s desk as often it appeared there. The depictions of blasphemous deeds aren’t that much to anyone who’s seen all that shit done on MTV by scrubs like Marilyn Manson, but the speech the satanist priest makes against god and Jesus is pretty impressive, even in translation. After all this, Durtal and his bros eat dinner among the bells again and Durtal thinks, “maybe I’ll be Catholic after all,” maybe a little out of shock from what he’s seen but more in reaction to the way it confirms contemporary banality.

This is a weird, interesting book, less for the peculiarities of the occult scene and more for its form, pacing, and general ethos. French antimodernism is both less “catchy” than the usual Anglophone (or German, or Russian for that matter) variants but also usually a bit smarter, with a sense of actual tragedy. To the extent this is a mystery story, it’s less a whodunit and more what they used to call a “city mystery” – as cities expanded during the industrial revolution, people wrote loosely-plotted novels revealing their seamy undersides; part crime novel, part travelogue, part pornography. What lies at the heart of fin de siecle Paris? A deep rot, naturally, an underground war between good and bad occultists (but even the good ones are sketchy and basically off-camera), the base materialism of the age causing people to seek out older truths, but only when they think no one’s watching, etc. If you want to be an artist, you have to seek out truths that transcend the age, and that’s hard to do- the church might be the path of least resistance, even if it also produces occultists (the big bad satan priest is, naturally, a defrocked Catholic priest).

Again, Huysmans was an actual writer and a smart person and he was writing before whatever threshold in the mid-twentieth century was passed before we had to make all of these thing schematic. “Good” and “evil” barely show up- in fact, the throughline with the Gilles de Rais stuff, the payoff for Durtal narrating his notes, isn’t De Rais’s evil- it’s his redemption. When he got caught, after some brief tergiversation, he confessed and threw himself on the mercy of Mother Church, which he once served alongside Joan of Arc. According to Durtal, the parents of the children who De Rais brutalized and slaughtered all forgave him, prayed for him at his execution site, before they did him in. This, more than anything, is what Durtal/Huysmans sells to us as the greatness of the Middle Ages: not our sense of good and evil, cleansed of modern accretions, but an alien sense — none of it “makes sense” — that allows for an alien greatness. You wouldn’t see that in a contemporary good-evil narrative, I tend to think. The battles between occult forces would be hard to game out in any of the RPG systems I know about. It’s genuinely irrational, and that’s hard to get across, but Huysmans did it, even with his viewpoint characters of drawing room detectives. ****’

Review – Huysmans, “Là-Bas”