Review- Ngo, “Unmasked”

Andy Ngo, “Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Plan to Destroy Democracy” (2021) – I know I’ve lamented before the lack of interesting voices on the contemporary right. This constitutes a problem for me on a number of levels: one of my tasks is to read this shit, good or bad, and it would be nice if more were good; historically, there have been plenty of good right-leaning writers; and I suppose some part of me still wants to find worthy opponents. I knew Andy Ngo, grifter and professional victim, wouldn’t be the guy to provide any of that stuff, when I picked up his big leap from Twitter to bound paper books. My expectations were not high. Ngo still managed to disappoint.

Remember when people talked about how slick right-wing media was, back when cable news and talk radio were still a-forming and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh were taking the world by storm? Well, presumably now that they know that their base exists in the decaying minds of the old (and the pre-decayed minds of the willfully ignorant young), it seems they don’t really try that hard anymore. Or maybe books are such loss leaders, something to give an uncle for Christmas, it just doesn’t matter?

In any event, I went in expecting slickness. I thought it would be a smooth propaganda pill. It wasn’t. “Unmasked” is a poorly organized, underedited mess. Speaking as someone who has given some thought to the mixture of reporting, political polemic, and memoirs that Ngo is attempting here, “Unmasked” is mostly a good indicator of what not to do.

The usual question in the culture at large and when dealing with the right in particular is “is this person lying, or stupid?” I asked myself that plenty of times reading “Unmasked,” but structurally, the more relevant question is often “Is Andy Ngo (and his editors) completely incompetent, or is he/are they trying to be fancy?” The ways in which this text arranges reportage, history, polemic, and Ngo’s personal story (it leans a lot on Ngo getting his ass kicked by antifa once, and his parents fleeing Vietnam after Uncle Ho stole his mom’s slaves or something) make zero sense, and there’s no introduction that tries to explain. The chapter order seems like they put them through to make a table of contents, and within chapters, there’s often little rhyme or reason as to what paragraph goes where. The dispiriting conclusion I came to is that Hachette, a mainstream press (they also published antifascist Talia Lavin’s “Culture Warlords,” in the same catalog!), decided that their audience just didn’t give a damn. You’d figure Regnery might have more pride of workmanship, if not respect for their readership.

This is basically “Spooky Stories To Tell In The Dark” but aimed towards Fox News grandpas instead of towards pre-teen children. You’d figure trying to appeal to an audience that had completed their formal education, not just begun it, would make Ngo and his editors more attentive to form, not less, but alas. You could make something, not necessarily “good,” but at least interesting and provocative out of this. But no. And really, why bother? No one is reading this to learn anything, except maybe for me and some other antifascists trying to dope out what the other side is thinking.

They aren’t thinking. This is a dangerous thing for me to think- surely someone somewhere is thinking something, and if I assume they’re not I could get complacent. I’ll buy that some cops are thinking. Maybe some think tank types, and perhaps someday I’ll find an actually interesting contemporary right-wing thinker toiling away in obscurity, probably on a blog somewhere. But for the most part, no. They’re feeling and reacting. This is a Fox News segment in prose. Ever try to read the transcripts of a Fox News show? Ever try it for three hundred pages? You’re not going to get any actual thought there. The thought comes from behind the scenes- what combination of (small, often false, always decontextualized bits of) information, images, and sounds will make our target audience’s lizard brain react the way we want it to? Without images and sounds, not only does it lack anything for the human brain, but the lizard brain within the human brain is left hungry, too.

Among other things, Ngo made the baffling choice to try to do riot porn (at one point he tries to ding the left for calling it that but basically forgets his point midway through the paragraph) in text. That’s hard even for good writers. Andy Ngo is a bad writer, and his attempt to document seemingly every time a Portland teen winged a water bottle at a riot cop line just makes the whole thing tedious. To the extent there’s a method here, I guess it would be just sheer repetition to get across a sense of crisis and beat down resistance to it. It’s another Fox News standby that might work in prose from a good writer, but again, we’re stuck with Ngo.

Lying, or stupid? That question comes into play with what rhetoricians might call “ethos”- how Ngo sells himself to sell his story. The most effective post-Watergate anglophone right-wing propaganda has relied on humor. You can do gravitas and danger to get across a specific point — like “we need to invade Iraq” — but it was humor that laid the groundwork, like the meme “anyone who cares about peace is an idiot, a pussy, and a hypocrite, and poorly-dressed to boot.” Reagan’s smile, Stone and Parker’s and Judge’s jokes, the altright’s memes… well, Ngo goes in a different direction. He is completely humorless throughout. GIS reveals an older millennial who can, indeed, smile, but it’s the smile of lost livestock, not that Reaganite sneer. Ngo is harmed, not harmer. He insists he is merely center-right, whatever that means now. He probably means it, no matter how much cover he gives the likes of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys.

The closest thing to an intrinsic interest to “Unmasked” is in how Ngo weaponizes gormlessness. Graduate students don’t have a ton of analytical advantages beyond just time to develop them, but they’ll have an edge in understanding this: Ngo is that student who wanders into your cubicle genuinely unsure of why he got that patronizing, generous B. He deserved a B- but he wants an A- at least. He tried so hard! You can point out a few things he got wrong, some bad writing tics like overuse of passive voice (Ngo likes his passive voice). But you can’t just tell him “you said nothing and repeated cliches for five pages” without literally reading the whole damned paper aloud to him, with commentary. So you bump him up to B+ so he’ll leave your cube, unless the passive voice was so egregious you can hold on to that unadorned B.

Put a camera in your cube, and who do you think a viewer would sympathize with? The overeducated lout trying to get back to his Twitter browsing or the nice clean cut kid explaining how hard he tried? It’s precisely that dynamic Ngo tries to exploit. It’s the closest to smart he gets. Are the gormless really gormless or do they fake it for effect? One of the good lessons of the wonderful “The Good Soldier Svejk” is that it doesn’t have to be either/or. Few people are so gormless they can’t figure out basic patterns, like that when they lean into their gormlessness with a sucker, they get sympathy, or money, or better grades, and so it is with Ngo. And there’s no bigger bunch of suckers than the Fox News audience he’s cultivating.

So Ngo acts shocked, shocked! That angry people in groups he routinely denounces maybe don’t want him around and are willing to physically chase him from their presence. Shocked, shocked! That people don’t like capitalism or think maybe it has a relationship with racism. Is he really shocked, really that gormless, or is it an act meant to help get him over, differentiate him from real right-wing ideologues? Does it matter? For my money, only if you can operationalize the difference. Let know if you can.

How bad is it when a non-historian’s half-assed historical section is the best part of a book? Not a good part, mind, but it’s less actively mendacious than the rest of the book. When Ngo relates that the East German government made a big deal out of being antifascist while deploying the Stasi (the ORIGINAL cancel culture!) against its people, does he actually think that has anything to do with antifa, or is he being cynical? Who cares. One place that seems to hint against gormlessness is his consistent habit of misgendering and deadnaming. If he was that simple and non-ideological, Forrest Gump with a GoPro, he could show some basic respect. He doesn’t even bother with fun conspiratorial cork board stuff! Just notes Democrats are less febrile about antifa than Republicans and that the NLG bails them out of jail. Jesus. When you can’t even bother with that, what can you do? ‘

Review- Ngo, “Unmasked”

Review- Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City”

Steven Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac” (2018) – I read this one as part of a piece I’m writing prompted by another (better, shorter) book on millennial religious/spiritual practices. I’m going to be reading some speeches and writings by Senate creep Josh Hawley next for that project, so really treating myself here!

At first, I was excited for this book. Reviews and the author of the better millennial spirituality book made it sound intelligent. “Aha, perhaps here, we will get a contemporary intellectual conservative!” I was thinking. Still that Michael Mann impulse to find worthy opposition, a Neil in a world of Waingros… This Steve Smith guy is no Waingro, no reichsadler tattoo and (probably) no dead sex workers (one of the weaknesses in “Heat,” they just… threw that in and did nothing with it- I love “Heat,” but it has holes you can drive a truck through). He’s a Christian conservative law professor. Alas, he is no Neil. He’s… I dunno… one of the people ducking when the big gunfight spills into a grocery store parking lot? It’s just a metaphor.

Beyond reviews, I thought “Pagans and Christians in the City” sounded promising because it seemed to promise a look at the perennial political problem of how people with radically different ideas of the sources of authority and rules of conduct might live together. I dreamed it might get into the nitty-gritty of how different cosmopolitan societies arranged these things, and used that knowledge to analyze the culture war situation of today. It is that relationship between millennial spirituality and civic life — such as it is today — that I intend to interrogate in my piece.

Alas, what I got instead was… well, I’ll say it was an interesting experience, my emotional state through reading this book. We begin with excitement. Smith says he’s going to show that today’s culture wars align with the culture wars in imperial Rome, a conflict between Christians and pagans. More abstractly, the conflict is between believers in a transcendent spirituality — the ultimate source of power and authority comes from something outside of the world, as believed by the Abrahamic religions (my understanding is that it might be a bit iffier than that in Judaism, but ok) — and believers in immanent spirituality: the idea that the sacred inheres in this world. Most of the “pagans” don’t worship ye olden gods nowadays, and, as Smith and many others note, neither did many of the pagans of antiquity, especially the educated types who left their ideas for us to read. But they do have a distinct attitude to the world and the hereafter that transcendent spirituality does not share. Ok, so far, so good- maybe not all the way “right” but coherent and interesting.

Then, the erudition. I’m fine with people flashing their learning around. It’s fun. I do it. But A. the sententious gentleman-scholar affect conservative intellectuals put on gets old, fast and B. it’s tone unsuited to content. Don’t come the classics scholar when you’re not reading in the Latin and Greek originals. All of Smith’s arguments about what Rome was like come from secondary sources. As best I can tell, they’re mostly legitimate, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with structuring an argument from them. But I’m relating the subjective experience of reading, and it got annoying as he went on and on in this performatively judicious tone (lawyers gonna lawyer I guess) that he hasn’t got the erudition for…

So, disappointment is, I guess, the theme going forward. Especially once he stops noodling on the classics and gets down to brass tacks, several different types of disappointment hit at once. First, he quickly dismisses the concept of secularism. Very few people are truly secular, he says, because it’s too hard to face the universe that way. There’s some truth in that, the first part, anyway, and there is a long list of supposed seculars, from smart people like Richard Dworkin to stupid people like Sam Harris, who find their way back to some acceptable spirituality. Smith says that spirituality tends to be a worldly, “immanent” one, and while that’s true in some cases, the Harrises of the world, for all their flirtation with things like Buddhism, also clearly believe in forces at work transcendent and vengeful enough for any bearded Semitic sky god… but the real stupid line Smith uses is that you can tell no one’s secular because so few people agree with strict utilitarianism- so few are fine with violent eugenics, basically. It’s basically “you can’t be a good person without god” gone to law school.

It’s basically downhill from there. Things get more lawyerly and myopic as Smith focuses on his instances of the ways in which transcendent-Christians (and Jews and sometimes Muslims, he hastens to add) and immanent-pagans can’t live together without conflict over public space, and how it’s all the latter’s fault for pushing their immancence-religion-posing-as-secular-fairness on people. At this point, I was mainly hoping for some entertaining freakouts. If the dude couldn’t bring real insight, at least he could amuse us all with some good shrieking about “ethical sluts” and trans people in bathrooms, right? That’s an established pattern- pseudo-erudite maundering followed by the freakout. But no such luck. There’s just the amusement factor of him fighting the last war, the gay marriage war. Forget Japanese soldiers abandoned on Pacific islets still thinking the war is going on- this is like a salaryman at Mitsubishi not getting the war is over after the side that won agreed to reconstruct his country (like how gay marriage has partially domesticated queerness).

The stupid thing is, there is a story here. There are legitimate questions of collective life that “live and let live” — my go-to answer — doesn’t answer. You’d figure the right, with its interest in the details of hierarchy, one of the main arrangements used in organizing society, would have something to say, here. But no. I’ve said before how the right’s embrace of sentimentality since the Reagan era has kneecapped it intellectually, and this exposes another liability of power to thought: they fuel their rule-making machine with the petty grudges of pedants and martinets, letting them climb the ladder and telling them they’re smart when really, they’re just widgets. I give this an extra star for groping towards a real set of questions, but ultimately, it was a big disappointment. **

Review- Smith, “Pagans and Christians in the City”

Review- O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

Patrick O’Brian, “Master and Commander” (1969) – In many respects, my decision to read this book (to the extent it was mine- it was elected by the Citizens of Melendy Avenue Review, a fine body of people you should join!), came down to genre homework. The Aubrey-Maturin sea adventures, of which this is the first, have had an outsized effect on adventure fiction of all kinds. It’s fair to say I’ve read people doing Patrick O’Brian in space (David Weber), Patrick O’Brian with dragons (Naomi Novik), Patrick O’Brian in weird alternate history scenarios (S.M. Stirling), etc. So I figured it made sense to read the original article, though of course you’ll have people saying I should go back to C.S. Forester and the “Hornblower” novels, or back before them, or back and back until you wind up with Homer… but most seem to agree O’Brian in particular had a special stamp. His work might have been my biggest single gap in my genre education, other than the gaping lacuna of romance, the English language’s biggest genre… someday…

But “Master and Commander” wasn’t just homework. It turned out to be a lot of fun. The year was 1800! The Napoleonic Wars were raging and things are going pretty well for France and not so great for Britain. But the latter have the Royal Navy (and the English Channel, arguably the most consequential twenty-one miles of water in history). Big sailing ships were almost certainly the most complex technological systems then in existence. Building, crewing, maintaining, sailing, and fighting them involved massive expenditures of both capital and labor, and the development of complex systems of control. If you could make the investment, it paid off big, like it did for the British and eventually the Americans. If you couldn’t, catching up was damned near impossible, as the French and later the Germans found. Just putting guns, even a lot of guns, on something that floats won’t do it.

What you needed were institutions, a culture even, to run such big, complex systems in the absence of a lot of the technological and administrative aids we take for granted, even mass literacy. “Master and Commander” takes you right into that culture and into those systems. I guess that’s a dorky way of saying that O’Brian immerses the reader in how the Royal Navy and its ships worked. We learn of the different types of ship, and especially sloops, smaller ships of the type with which we spend the most time in the book. There’s a lot about rigging and sails, masts, ropes, spars, navigation, stuff being at port and starboard and leeward and windward. We see the rituals of the service, both above decks with the officers and below with the men. There’s a lot of gritty detail about how the Royal Navy operated, which I’ll get into when I discuss plot. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash,” as the Churchill quote (and much better Pogues album) put it, are all present and accounted for to one degree or another.

Of course, most historical fiction readers (and I understand this as paradigmatic historical fiction- is that right?) aren’t reading for systems, though immersion in the rich details of the past are definitely an appeal. At the heart of the book lie relationships between men. The most important is that between Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin. It starts out with Stephen shooshing Jack at a concert, but they soon wind up bosom buddies. Jack has a ship, the sloop “Sophie,” his first independent command, but senior officers stripped her of most of her better men, including her surgeon. So he hires on Stephen, who’s overqualified but glad to get off Minorca, the tiny Mediterranean island where things start, and have adventures with Jack and see new animals and plants and stuff. Stephen is a man of learning, a naturalist, something of an Enlightenment philosophe type (but no damned radical); Jack is a bluff, honest, impulsive Englishman, who likes women, food, a good fight, and prize money.

One of the more interesting things to me in this book is the way in which money moves things (not too different from that other perennial favorite depicting manners and mores of the same period, Jane Austen). The Royal Navy had an entrepreneurial streak certain management writers of today would admire- they would send ships out cruising for enemy shipping, and let the officers and men keep much of the loot they took. It turned out to be a pretty good system when your goal was to disrupt the Europe-wide economic bloc Napoleon was trying to create, and had crews of poor (often kidnapped) men with few options led by officers, like Captain Aubrey, from the petty nobility or bourgeoisie who could use the scratch to launch themselves up Britain’s greasy social pole. Of course, O’Brian and his characters don’t really see it that way- they see it as great fun. Men out on their own, in a hierarchy of real talent and respect, cruising the seas and mixing it up… and O’Brian gets the reader to have fun with it, too, and seeing the system behind it is just part of the fun. These are worldly men who accept the world and make the most of it.

There’s a lot of fun action, from early “shakedown” cruises where Captain Jack gets his misfit crew to work together on the rigging and the guns properly, to battles with other ships (often bigger and more heavily-armed, but clever strategy and brio wins the day… usually), to sneaking up on coastal fortifications and blowing them up. There’s false flags (which I thought weren’t allowed, but apparently were?) and other mischief. Stephen serves as our landlubber eyes, asking Jack and other sailors how stuff works, but there’s way, way too many sails and masts and ropes and decks and widgets and whatevers to actually keep track. You just let it wash over you. The character work is quite good in its way, unobtrusive and effective- you learn to like the other officers from small interactions.

They get a year or so of fun doings until Royal Navy politics rears its ugly head. Jack is a simple man who enjoys simple things, like sex, including with an important naval bureaucrat’s wife (Stephen, for his part, seems only to have oh-so-platonic eyes for his bestie, Jack). Said bureaucrat screws Jack out of a big score “Sophie” took and puts him on a milk run, escorting a mail ship. Saucy Jack takes some scores on coastal Spain, tipping off some big ass French and Spanish ships, and gets captured (O’Brian knows where to draw the line in terms of what dash and elan can accomplish).

And then… well, it’s not a big problem, but it is pretty anticlimactic. After some amusing scenes where both Jack and Stephen become bros with their captors — officers and doctors can always talk shop, even if they were trying to kill each other not so long ago — they get swapped out, and Jack looks like he’ll get in trouble for losing his ship (and pissing off too many other officers by showing them up/sleeping with their wives)… but he doesn’t. There’s another anticlimax earlier, where some intrigue involving Stephen, the ship’s second in command James, and the United Irishmen (rebels in colonized Ireland, just recently suppressed), basically comes to nothing after having been built up for a while.

Still and all, it’s fun times. I could see people getting tired of the nautical terminology, or just wanting Jack and Stephen to hurry up and bang already, but clearly both the terminology and the suppression of the homoeroticism involved is part of the genre fun. I think it more or less fully earns the hype and its exalted place in genre fiction, and I look forward to reading the next one. ****’

Review- O’Brian, “Master and Commander”

Review- Gyasi, “Homegoing”

Yaa Gyasi, “Homegoing” (2016) (narrated by Dominic Hoffman) – Historical fiction, as a category, eludes me somewhat. A friend defined it for me reasonably well, but I confess that I had been drinking and most of what I remember was that it’s fiction set before living memory but still within historical time i.e. not in a mythical undated past. I feel like there’s more to it than that, a certain relationship to the past, but I never solidified my thoughts on this; maybe it is just as my friend (who reads more historical fiction than I do, I’m pretty sure) has it and that’s it.

For instance- “Homegoing,” which made quite a splash when it came out in 2016, first novel by a writer in her mid-twenties… is it historical fiction? It does, indeed, take place in the past, ranging from the eighteenth century to close to the present day. It’s also definitely literary fiction. I suppose genre boundaries are generally looser these days, but all the same I can’t shake the idea that real, on-the-button historical fiction is… more romantic? More detail focused, really embedding you in the past? More populist? I don’t know.

Anyway! “Homegoing” is a story of two lineages. They are descended from half-sisters on the eighteenth century Gold Coast, in today’s Ghana. Effia, raised among the Fante people, marries a British officer overseeing the slave trade; Esi, raised semi-illegitimately among the Asante, winds up enslaved, sold out of the fortress that Effia’s husband oversees. We then follow the two half-sister’s descendants, Effia’s in Ghana, Esi’s in the United States, through two centuries or so of history.

Critics have described “Homegoing” as closer to a collection of short stories than a novel, and there’s something to that. Not only do the chapters focus on separate individuals as we follow the lines through the generations, they’re usually cut off from whoever became before. The previous generation in any given story is usually dead, sold away, missing, otherwise absent from the action with few exceptions, where the previous generational character is old and beaten down by life. The traumas of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow will tend to do that. The lines come together in the end, thanks to the magic of university education in the late twentieth century. There’s no happily-ever-after promised for the last two of their respective lines but they do gain a certain degree of self-knowledge… that feels like a common trope in contemporary literature but I wouldn’t stake too much on it.

Truth be told, the characters started to run together some as Gyasi hit various historical beats. More than individuals, there was “the post-Reconstruction guy,” “the lady around when they introduce cacao production in Ghana,” “the college kids,” etc. That could be part of the point- history and it’s long-neglected, now-attention-grabbing personal-level cousin, intergenerational trauma, determines these characters more than interiority. It also could be that such a work is less suited for listening to as an audiobook, though the voice actor, Dominic Hoffman, does a decent job (note- I’m no judge of African accents so don’t get mad if you listen and don’t like his).

Trauma and history interact to make character- self-knowledge, and knowledge of one’s lineage, maybe provides a key to a meaningful life; as far as I can tell, these are the points of the book. It’s kind of similar to “Roots,” in a way, though the feel is entirely different. “Roots” came out of the black pride moment (written by a Republican who was, arguably, trying to corral black pride to an at least moderately conservative end); “Homegoing” comes out of contemporary social justice and fiction workshop milieus. Gyasi’s prose is finer than Haley’s, by a wide margin; Haley’s prose was generally more vigorous than Gyasi’s.

Trauma, history, lineage-knowledge as self-knowledge… white people tried this script, in the twentieth century, sometimes with real pathos (Jewish writers coming to terms with the Holocaust), sometimes more with bathos (“white ethnic” stuff amongst gentiles, and not a few Jews too). I think it is different from PoC writers, frankly, I’m not about to call them bathetic unless they go really overboard, but we’ll just say it has little to do with my idea of history. As far as I’m concerned — and I know this puts me at odds with leftists of more of a socialist stripe, as well as lineage-knowledge-power types who tend to be more left-liberal — I don’t believe there is a redemptive arc in history. I don’t believe it in personal history and I don’t believe it in global history and I don’t believe it for any history in between. Even if we achieve global or galactic utopia, that won’t have any bearing on what happened before. Each moment of the past has its own validity, its own goodness or badness not transfigurable into something else by the future…

Well! We’ve gotten off the beaten path and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gyasi more or less agrees but still sees power and healing in ancestry stories. And why not! She hasn’t got my long line of potato-diggers and pogrom-dodgers and, eventually, settlers of stolen land and wage-slaves to look back on. I’m just relating why this maybe didn’t move me more. It wasn’t bad but I didn’t get that much into it.

I will say, I have some interest in the increasing intellectual/cultural prominence of immigrants from Africa and their children (presumably, soon enough, grandchildren et al) in American life. Yaa Gyasi is one such, the daughter of academics who came to the US from Ghana, and who has lived on both sides of the pond. Two funny tells of the “West African moment,” beyond the Nigerian and Ghanaian et al names you see on bestseller lists and TV. I used to listen to a podcast hosted by black men who made much of the supposedly privileged status of immigrant Africans and how they supposedly don’t play well with “American descendants of slaves,” which apparently is a buzz-phrase with online black reactionaries now? Also, the fell Amy Chua, jurist, pop-sociologist, possible procurer for Brett Kavanaugh, named Nigerian-Americans as one of six or so, like, “power-ethnicities” to look out for in the next few generations. Interesting portents! ***

Review- Gyasi, “Homegoing”

Review- Corey, “Leviathan Wakes”

James S. A. Corey, “Leviathan Wakes” (2011) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – I figured I’d give the Expanse series a try. People recommend the tv show to me but I wanted to try the books first, and I do make some cursory efforts to “keep up” with what’s big in scifi. At this rate it’ll be years before I get to the show, especially if my work tasks change again and I can’t do audiobooks, but we’ll see. I haven’t got much time for hour-long tv shows these days anyway.

In any event, this wasn’t great but it was good. It’s written by two dudes (“James Corey” is a “house name”), one of whom was George R.R. Martin’s personal assistant. It appears they learned much from Martin: short chapters alternating viewpoints (with the viewpoint character’s name right up top), idealists becoming more worldly and cynics learning to believe in something, blood splashed liberally around, detailed and interesting (if not mind-blowingly original) worldbuilding.

The two main characters are Miller, a world weary cop on a habitat in the Asteroid Belt, and Holden, an idealistic officer on a merchant spaceship (truth be told, the authors kind of slather the idealism on heavy towards the end to give their duller character a personal crisis). A cluster of murders, crises, and general fuckery set the Solar System on a collision course towards war, unearth ancient evils, and of course bring the two characters together to fix things.

The Expanse takes place a few centuries from now, when Mars, much of the Asteroid Belt, various moons are settled by people (but not terraformed). There’s no “faster than light” technology propelling us to the stars- everything takes place with the good ol’ solar system. It resembles, in many ways, the workaday space setting of the “Alien” movies: megacorporations, polyglot proletarian communities of spacers, confined utilitarian environments, etc. I like that sort of thing, though I do think the authors could have mixed it up a little more. Maybe it’s just the historian in me but I’m a little irked that they depict the community feeling of “Belters” (residents of Asteroid Belt stations) as basically the sort of nationalism we see on Earth, just cut and pasted onto outer space. Especially given the ways they distinguish Belters from “Inners” (people who live on the inner planets) — they’re physically different in some ways, speak their own patois, developed a culture around the harsh necessities of space habitation — you’d think there’d be a good opportunity to see how different ideas of community might develop…

This pattern repeats itself in a few places. There’s some (rather pro forma) invocation of the wonders of space travel, but this is no final frontier and there’s nothing really that imaginative, in either the world or the plot. The closest is an ancient evil non-human intelligence that “infects” a space station and gives it an eldritch consciousness. But in the end, that mostly amounts to an opportunity for some creepy H.R. Giger-inspired body horror and a very human-scale redemption narrative. The characters are also pretty by-the-numbers. Space cop is “in love” with a dead (conventionally attractive, natch) girl he’s meant to find. Space officer/dad of misfit space family has to learn to be more flexible but not give up his moral compass. Gruff space men are gruff. But the book hits the old beats enjoyably enough, like a well-practiced barroom rock band. I’m willing to try out the next one. ****

Review- Corey, “Leviathan Wakes”

Review- Wilde, “Salomé” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Oscar Wilde, “Salomé” (1894) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895) – Oscar Wilde! I’ve known about him forever but this is my first time reading him. I got a book of his plays at a used place when I was briefly dating a woman who liked his work. One of the Melendy Avenue Review Citizens (become a Citizen, come on, it’s cool) indicated he wanted me to read Wilde so I’d reveal details of said relationship. There’s not a lot to reveal. We had fun for about two months and then something stupid and shitty happened and we both said and did dumb shit and then it was over and we haven’t spoken for years. The end.

I’m not sure Wilde is really relevant there, except maybe in being a libertine, which I guess the lady in question also was, but not really more than most people our age. Being a libertine was riskier in Victorian days- Wilde went to jail for a couple of years for sodomy, which ruined his health and probably prematurely ended his life. He had fun encounters with censors, too, including having “Salomé” banned from the London stage because it depicted biblical characters. But he was a rich, educated, Anglo-Irish libertine, and you could say he got the last laugh as he’s still beloved to this day.

I get the idea people probably love the image of Wilde more than they do his actual written work, but the latter holds up ok too. “The Importance of Being Earnest” is an amusing farce wherein two cynical dudes get with two idealistic-but-wily ladies, both of whom really want to be with men named Ernest because of the romantical sound of the name? And so they need to both be Ernest and a little bit earnest, despite being cynical and owning each other all the time with witty ripostes and generally not taking things seriously, and despite neither having been bestowed with the handle in question. One of the characters also discovers his paternity! Normally, a cynic getting all misty-eyed about love and paternity after however long acting above it all makes me mad, but it’s hard to do with Wilde, I guess because of his writing chops and the fact it was all so long ago. I will say the tropes — contrasts between London and country behavior, dronish young men, dreamy young women, battleaxe aunts, confusion and duplicity leading to love — were done better by Wodehouse in my opinion, but would there be a Wodehouse without a Wilde? That’s for historians of British comedy to say, I guess.

After finishing “The Importance of Being Earnest” I gave “Salomé” a try as a dessert. It’s a one-act fever dream about Christianity and paganism in the key of Orientalism. I don’t mean this to make it “problematic” though I guess it is, if you care- I mean to indicate that it partakes of a tradition of immoralists like Wilde looking to a fabulous (in many senses of the word) East. Say what you want about Orientalism as a topos but it was meant to entertain, provide a sensuousness conspicuously lacking in the coal-damp European modernity that developed alongside it. Salomé is sex as a certain kind of Victorian understood it, in all of its naivete and knowingness. Chivalry destroys itself for her, venality in the form of her mother and step-father try to contain her whilst despoiling her, pedants ignore her to fight each other, above all the crude misogynist prophet John the Baptist, representative of what’s coming next (SOME motherfuckers are going to be vexed to nightmare by the rocking of a cradle, to quote the most abused poem in the English language, by Wilde’s fellow Anglo-Irish weirdo lit guy), defies her, spits on her, gets got by her (well, her slaves, but on her command), and ultimately has the last grim, tight-lipped non-laugh at her expense. It’s weird. Part of me wants to do a table read of it over Discord or something but, as they say, it is “problematic.” But short! DM me? ****

Review- Wilde, “Salomé” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Review- Moore and Tracy, “No Fascist USA!”

Hilary Moore and James Tracy, “No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements” (2020) – A comrade recommended this book to me. I do love a good movement history, and this one is pretty good indeed. It details the doings of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, which fought the good fight against the resurgent KKK and other white supremacist groups in a period one could call “the long eighties” — formed in 1978, the JBAKC disbanded amicably in 1992.

I had vaguely heard of the group — had seen images of their broadsheet, “DEATH TO THE KLAN!” — but what I didn’t know is that it was mostly made up of SDS and often Weather Underground veterans. I kind of assumed that the ones who didn’t wind up in jail for robbing armored cars all married Jane Fonda and became Democrats, but that’s where assuming gets you. These movement vets looked for ways to get involved during the doldrums of the late seventies. You could say they turned the sort of desperation to prove themselves “good whites” to better use than ill-conceived armed robberies. Namely, when a few of them got a letter from a Black Panther incarcerated in an upstate New York prison that many of the guards and officials at the prison were Klansmen, they got together with other organizers to do something about it. Thus was the JBAKC born.

The Klan (both the actual Klan and Klan-as-metonym-for-open-violent-white-supremacist-organizing) grew considerably in the late seventies and early eighties, fueled by post-Vietnam angst and the general rightward drift that brought Ronald Reagan into office. They got involved in stuff as diverse as “patrolling” the US-Mexico border for migrants, intimidation campaigns aimed at refugee Vietnamese fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, attempting to pretty up their bullshit and go mainstream, etc. Many of them were emboldened by the Greensboro massacre in 1979, where a coalition of Klansmen and Neo-Nazis gunned down five communist organizers who had come out (mostly unarmed) to protest against them… and everyone involved walked free.

JBAKC was mostly a handful of aging radicals. What could they do against this? Well, they could do what radicals are supposed to do- they could organize. They linked up with other groups, often local PoC organizations and some national ones, like the Republic of New Afrika. The New Afrikans, in some respects, provided a conceptual bridge for the former Weather Underground people. New Afrikans, as black/“Third World people” (that’s a phrase you don’t hear nowadays) anti-imperialist organizers, could call upon those who held to the old WUO line (that the role of white radicals was to follow what third world radicals were up to) to follow their lead in fighting the Klan. Kind of weird the white radicals were that programmatic about things, but that’s still a thing you see today, sometimes. Either way, these radicals meant it. They had every opportunity to sell out and get into real estate or supplements or something and didn’t do it.

The coalitions JBAKC helped build did different things in different places. They outed Klansmen and other white supremacists, getting them fired from positions like the ones at the prison they were first warned about. They counter-demonstrated when the Klan or Nazis put on rallies, mostly sticking to signs and derisive chanting but unafraid to throw the occasional brick. They “no-platformed,” with the same unhelpful arguments on the left dogging their heels that we hear today, and Moore and Tracy argue reasonably persuasively that Nazi skinhead appearances on “Oprah” and “Geraldo” helped popularize Nazi skins (and marginalize anti-racist ones). They got involved with the punk scene and helped fend off Nazis there. They did what they could, where they could, and always linked up the struggles on the ground to broader struggles- anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and towards the end, fighting homophobia and AIDS stigma alongside ACT-UP.

The authors let the JBAKC organizers speak for themselves a lot, and it is stirring to hear the voice of experience, even (especially?) when they’re admitting to their faults. The writing in the book is pretty decent with some odd editing glitches (people, often referred to only by their first name, written about as though they’ve been introduced when they haven’t been- that recurs at least twice). More conclusions about what JBAKC accomplished, as opposed to their lessons — be humble, be persistent in the face of fascists, build coalitions, have strategy — for today’s organizers, valuable though the latter are.

JBAKC didn’t overthrow capitalism or even get Reagan out of office. The Klan and the various Nazi groups still, mostly, exist, joined by many others, now. For some (mostly armchair) leftists, that alone would discredit them. Moore and Tracy, who are organizers along with being historians, admit the group’s faults: self-righteousness, occasional dips into a dogmatism that made them turn off potential allies. But to me, that’s more or less the point. Antifascists, then or now, aren’t superheroes. We’re regular people working together to do what we can against a pressing problem. We are part of broader movements for justice and, for most of us, against capitalism. Antifascism is a part of that movement. For all the antifa theatrics you can summon up, I understand what we do as maintenance work for the movement- protecting our organizing and that of organizers and people more generally from marginalized groups under threat. If we manage that, we’ve done something good for the movement. If we prefigure a better world where people protect each other- well, that’s good too. JBAKC did that, and we can all follow their example. ****’

Review- Moore and Tracy, “No Fascist USA!”

Review- Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) – I’m pretty sure I’m allowed to like or dislike, in my heart of hearts, anything. It appears that the various Internet-based dispensations about artistic taste and personal virtue mostly only apply to public utterances. I recently had an acquaintance tell me it was important that I see a given pop star’s work as superlative, but that’s one of the few times lately I’ve had my internal headspace even lightly patrolled by woke types. To throw a somewhat inappropriate metaphor in there, most of us accept that individuals are the princes that decide on the religion of the subjects of their individual opinions in the feudalities of their minds- cuius regio, eius religio. Of course, the failures of that system led to the ghastly Thirty Years War, but what the hell, it’s just a metaphor.

But we are not concerned with my heart of hearts, here, because I express my opinions about books in public for all to read. I become “fair game.” This worried me, some. Humans are gregarious mammals and while I can shrug off abuse from strangers and enemies (there should be a good example of that up tomorrow, preview!) I don’t like to disappoint friends. So as I started “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I began to worry. What would the consequences be of publicly disliking this book? What are the consequences for publicly disliking a black women writer, besides the usual exceptions of your Candace Owens and Condoleezza Rices (Zora Neale Hurston’s politics weren’t great, either, but seemingly people don’t care)? What are the rules re black writers and women writers more generally? I found myself thinking about previous instances- I’ve disliked plenty of white women writers, like Sheila Heti and Sylvia Plath, with limited backlash, none of it moral/political. I’ve been critical of black male writers like Ibram Kendi and Colson Whitehead and it went fine. I haven’t read a ton of black women writers and I’ve liked most of them, especially Toni Morrison, Elaine Brown, and Octavia Butler. Hurston was by no means popular in her own time — Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison both denounced the book as patronizing to black people when it came out — but was rediscovered by seventies feminists.

As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry (probably didn’t need to in any event, but hey, worry keeps me on my toes). I wound up neither really liking nor really disliking this book. Part of my early worry was my pedantic dislike for the title. What else would they be watching God with? Their feet? I’ll also admit I wasn’t crazy about Hurston’s decision to write the vast majority of the book in southern black dialect orthography, including the first person singular becoming “Ah.” It made it more difficult to read, and if it were written by a non-black person, it would sound a lot like minstrel dialogue. I’ve seen examples of similar dialogue done better, but Hurston was something of a pioneer as a black writer writing black dialogue in literary fiction, so she sort of made the road.

Anyway- what is the book about? It is about a young black woman named Janie who wants more out of life than early twentieth century America wants to allow for black people, women, or especially black women. She wants independence, love, the simple pleasures of life. Her grandmother marries her off to a shitty dude. She runs off with another dude to Florida, where said dude becomes a big wheel and also turns out to be shitty, wanting her to be somewhere between a work mule (lots of mule imagery here, and pear trees- I never did like pears that weren’t caramelized, another innocuous feature conspiring against my enjoyment of this book) and a trophy wife. Said dude pops his clogs and Janie runs off with a younger man, nicknamed Tea Cakes. He’s the best of a bad lot. He’s fun, at least, and seems to sincerely like Jamie. He also steals from her and beats her at least once. The way Hurston depicts gradations of domestic abuse — she didn’t come out and say Tea Cakes’s beating “felt like a kiss” but it was basically considered “good” domestic violence — is both rough to read and probably reveals, in some backwards way, a truth about bad relationships. But then he gets bit by a rabid dog and gets rabies himself, forcing Janie to kill him. She gets off at her trial and then sets up as an independent lady, having found what happiness she can.

I’m sufficiently interested in experiences dissimilar to mine that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was worth engaging with in any event. That said, relationship stories need an extra “lift” to get them over on me (“but Peeeeeeter, alllllll stories are relationship stories!” bollocks). This has some lift, mostly towards the end. Hurston can tell a mean hurricane story. And you do wind up rooting for Janie. There’s less in the way of social commentary here than I expected. I tend to think that might be part of why Hurston’s Harlem Renaissance peers didn’t like it in the engagé thirties, and why it’s been an enduring classic since the seventies. White people basically don’t feature (except when white women rally around Janie’s defense after she kills Tea Cakes, an, errrr, interesting turn), and you can see why that would appeal. It’s not about criticizing an unfair society, it’s about relationships and their structural features. You can say there’s no such thing as society in this book, just men, women, and their dreams (not a ton of kids, either!)… but that’s probably the kind of thing that would get me in that trouble I was anticipating… ah, well. ***’

Review- Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Review- Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown”

George Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown” (1996) – George Pelecanos appears to be one of the big crime writing dudes of the last few decades. I first heard of him as a writer for “The Wire.” Or, rather, I heard of him because Ishmael Reed (a “problematic fave” of mine) tore him a new one when Reed was “on one” about “The Wire” being racist and chumpy a few years back. Pelecanos was a secondary target for Reed’s wrath, after Richard Price, but it did call attention to the gallery of big time crime writers who worked on “The Wire,” including Pelecanos (also including Reed’s fellow birthday lecture subject Dennis Lehane, who Reed did not name check in his diss, for whatever reason). So I figured I’d give Pelecanos a read. Sorry, Mr. Reed.

“The Big Blowdown” takes place in Washington DC mostly during the late forties. The soldiers are back home from the war, the dames are sexy, no one leaves home without their “deck” of filterless smokes, and even low-level crooks like the characters in this book dress sharp (the main character is a clothes horse with an interest in women’s shoes- I wonder if Pelecanos is into historical lady footwear? A charming personal detail if so). Pete Karras is a local boy, son of Greek immigrants and combat veteran, who drifts into organized crime with his childhood bestie Joe. He gets into trouble because he’s too nice to working-class immigrants who owe his boss money (the boss and his flunkies all have “old stock” Yankee or German names- wonder if there were many mobs like that running around?). Joe judas-goats Pete into a crippling ass-whooping. Pete leaves the life and becomes a cook at a diner. Joe stays.

This is a crime novel but not a mystery. There is a whodunit of sorts in the background that becomes important to the plot — someone is cutting up sex workers — but it’s pretty obvious quite soon who is doing it and it’s not the point of the book. The point mostly lies with Pete’s relationships and with the historical background/mood. Pete shows what was cool about forties manhood — the dames love him and he can kick ass even when limping — but Pelecanos isn’t shy about what all that cost. Dames love him but he can’t keep a good relationship. He’s married, routinely cheats, can’t connect with his toddler son. He’s something of a loser. When Joe and the mob he still works for come around to shake down the diner where Pete works, Pete and his hardass Greek immigrant employers prepare for a showdown with the mob. “Closure” for Pete and Joe’s relationship — in classic tough-guy fiction fashion, men’s relationships with women (mother excepted) are chapters but relationships with other men are books — and survival for the defiant diner become intertwined. There’s a side plot with a kid from a Pennsylvania steel town trying to find his addict sister in the big city that gets tied in, too.

The main peculiarity here is that the first forty pages or so of the book involve Pete’s childhood and then his service in the war. It establishes Pete’s relationship with Joe, I suppose, and the immigrant milieu in which they live. The war stuff makes clear Pete is a badass. But it seems to me other detective fiction does similar stuff without making such a big thing out of it. I was never especially curious about the childhood of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, I have to say. Part of it seems to be Pelecanos’s devotion to immersing the reader in his world. He draws Balzac comparisons from critics, and you can see why that would have attracted the producers of “The Wire.” He doesn’t do a half-bad job with it, either, but I’m not sure it’s the best thing for a crime story, compared to a lighter touch on the characterization and world building. The novel does tighten up considerably towards the end, when the pacing really comes on line, where it counts. All told, not a bad book.

I am developing a thesis that the nineties/early 2000s were an interesting time for crime writing for a few weird reasons. There’s some funny negotiations with sex and race, white tough guy writers dealing with earlier iterations of the “anti-oppression” ideas we see today, taking angles where they can. One of the best crime writers of that era, Eddie Little, a real life ex-con who literary fraud James Frey ripped off, had his characters spool out whole theories of how people of different races should talk to each other (with such rules as “if someone of a given race isn’t there, you can shit talk them all you like”) in between scores. Little wrote two books full of grit and jailhouse braggadocio-turned-flight-of-fancy, then relapsed into heroin use and died, leaving American crime fiction the poorer. As for Pelecanos, his characters, mostly Greeks, interact with black people in ways that make me wonder if they were meant to be rebukes to “political correctness”- a sort of rough and ready equality where both sides interact and rib each other (slurs included) and nobody’s keeping score… Pelecanos has a helpful black gangster give a speech about how he doesn’t want to be integrated, he wants to be on top of his own thing… I don’t think that’s the point of the book at all but it does make me wonder about the genre and the time. ****

Review- Pelecanos, “The Big Blowdown”