SPECIAL DOUBLE REVIEW – Oyler, “Fake Accounts” and Tolentino, “Trick Mirror”


Lauren Oyler, “Fake Accounts” (2021) (narrated by Rebecca Lowman)


Jia Tolentino, “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” (2019) (narrated by the author)

Noah Sapperstein: You wanted to save drama, but you have created nothing worth saving.

– Hamlet 2 (2008)

Thinking and writing about the Internet and identity has gotten so tedious that when I found out that Lauren Oyler, whose acclaimed new debut novel “Fake Accounts” I was listening to at work, wrote a “scathing” review of well-known Internet scribe Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, “Trick Mirror,” I fantasized that maybe they could get into a rivalry, like Nas and Jay-Z or at least Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, to lend some interest to a contemporary literary scene that sorely needs it. It doesn’t really look that likely to materialize. Tolentino tweeted something implying the strange intimacy of being read with such thoroughgoing disgust as Oyler displayed towards her (and also turned on Kristen Roupenian, author of viral hit short story “Cat People”) was somewhat enjoyable, and to the best of my knowledge that was that. I’m not on Twitter so I learn about these things via looking stuff up on Wikipedia and the like.

If there’s one thing Oyler is capable of in the literary sphere (beyond conveying a vague impression that she’s heir to Susan Sontag and/or Joan Didion), it is conveying disgust. “Fake Accounts” drips with disgust: for New York and Berlin, the cities in which it takes place; for every character within it; for the Internet, which is marketed as the novel’s subject; for most forms of human expression; and for the novel’s first-person narrator. This disgust expresses itself mostly through treating its objects as obvious subjects for disdain and expecting the reader to go with. This isn’t too difficult, given that the subjects are generally things like guided Berlin pub crawls, white middle-class liberalism circa 2017, online dating, and so on. As I tired of this book, I could “go with” the disgust mainly in the direction of the narrator, though I noticed a certain disgust differential in the narrator’s favor with which I could not agree.

We’re in the usual shell-game here, “is the narrator (nameless, natch) the writer???” The answer to shell games is to not play, or flip the table over and take the scammer’s money. So at this point I pretty much assume these first-person narrators are author-substitutes (and generally, implicitly, audience-substitutes too). Like Oyler, the narrator is a younger-millennial writer from a lower-middle-class background who went to an elite college and wrote for a kind of bullshit Internet publication (Oyler was a Broadly writer). I considered that maybe Oyler was basing her narrator on the writers she works amongst and despises, like Tolentino or Roupenian. But this is a woman who is fine using the word “hysterical” — rather throws it down like a gauntlet — to describe the writers she and her narrator hates, and the narrator does not come off that way. What clinched it for me was when the narrator declared she didn’t like any music except for jazz or classical. No way would anyone looking to make fun of most millennial scribblers give their target that character trait, but it fits right in with the critical brand Oyler has been building, modernism’s revenge (but still willing to talk celebrities). The narrator is the author, or anyway, close enough.

The story, presumably, is the made-up part, though it’s really more outline than plot. In early 2017, the narrator finds out that her sort-of-boyfriend, Felix, runs a popular right-wing conspiracy theory Instagram account, and has kept it entirely secret from everybody. This is where my complicity, the complicity most marks have with the people who con them, comes in. This plot gambit is the major selling point of the book in the copy about it. I allowed the copy to convince me that the novel would explore identity in the Internet age, and what I (thought I) knew about Oyler from other reading and what I saw of her public performance of self — a prickly intellectual, young but self-assured, highly critical of the poor state of contemporary letters, a Baffler contributor — convinced me it would be smarter than most such explorations. That’s on me, I guess- failure to be sufficiently critical, though this book has made a big enough splash it might have been inevitable that I’d read it at some point even if I thought it was going to be bad.

And it was pretty bad. It wasn’t about identity or the Internet or any of that. It’s about what most contemporary literary fiction is about- romantic relationships, and the (supposed) impossibility of connection we all (supposedly) experience. Neither of these are bad topics for fiction in and of themselves, though both are overdone and the latter takes a lot for granted. But Oyler has nothing interesting or original to say about them. Her narrator, after discovering Felix’s secret Instagram, goes to the 2017 Women’s March in DC for the weekend and decides to break up with him when she gets back. She has an ambivalent time among the pussy hats and on her way back gets a phone call informing her Felix has died. Thrown (despite the fact they didn’t seem to like each other that much or have been together that long), she flees to Berlin, the city where she and Felix met. She does some light online-identity-play herself as she compulsively goes on online dates and feels self-conscious about participating in the anglophone gentrification of the German capital. She finds out one last terrible truth about Felix, and that’s all she wrote.

The plot is dull, but really, what drove me over the edge into despising this novel was, I guess, what can be called the ethos of the narrator/author. In some books, and again we can harken back to Oyler’s career as a critic, where she implies that good literature is difficult modernist literature (not that she does anything as straightforward as lay her own cards on the table), that makes me a bad reader. The author is dead, yadda yadda. Well, fuck that, I’ve got google, and moreover, the narrator lives, and I’m about ready to call it a rule- unless you can prove otherwise, first-person narrators are authors, in a mirror with a certain degree of distortion. What we’re supposed to buy from the author/narrator in “Fake Accounts” is that she is a smart person and that her disgust for the world around her is motivated by her intelligence and sensitivity. She’s aware it’s unhelpful much of the time but we’re supposed to buy that as part of the package, self-awareness being an important part of being smart and/or good in contemporary English lit-fic-adjacent circles.

But Oyler does not sell it- she doesn’t sell it for the narrator who might or might not be her, and she doesn’t sell it about herself in her criticism. In fact, I need to reach into the altogether happier world of genre fiction to find a comparison- that moment when writers who are distinctly non-geniuses try to write their way into the heads of the geniuses they make up: Orson Scott Card with the genius kids in “Ender’s Game,” Thomas Harris with Hannibal Lecter (and to a lesser extent some of Lecter’s opposite numbers), Robert Anton Wilson with assorted guru figures in “Illuminatus!”, examples could be added. But at least those characters are vehicles for interesting shit happening. Both the unnamed character, and the persona of Lauren Oyler, critical crusader for literary standards, at best would be a vehicle for criticism of low points in our culture. And they can’t even land that!

In her criticism, Oyler dings fellow (overeducated millennial woman) writers Jia Tolentino and Kristen Roupenian for lack of precision in language- that’s where the “hysterical” crack directed at Tolentino comes in. Tolentino sees how the structures of online content creation and consumption demand performances of emotionality (especially from women), she criticizes it, and yet, she still writes about how she “was driven insane” by various things that, clearly, left herself sane enough to become a successful writer and marketer-of-self, Oyler points out (with the smug self-assurance of someone pointing out you criticized capitalism from a smartphone which you presumably bought on the market). She also points to the ways in which contemporary writers (and here Roupenian gets more of the criticism) exploit tragedy porn and treat acceptable targets of scorn — like creepy, or even just normal and somewhat horny, men — as less than human. More than anything, she hammers home the point that contemporary culture is cheap and sloppy, which is fair enough (though again, she says nothing unique or compelling in the process- to quote a modernist of the sort she gives her rare nod of approval toward, “there’s no there there”) all things considered.

So having said all that, presumably, Oyler can blow our asses away by getting at what things are really like, right? Unmotivated as she is by market logic (she calls herself a socialist at various points and has written for the Baffler but shows nothing but contempt for virtually any opinion she writes about, especially any form of protest or direct action against Trump)? Ivy League schooled but keeping it real with West Virginia roots? Wrong again! For all that it’s dull, the story is also unrealistic. Despite her novel being temporally framed by politics, Oyler avoids saying anything about it other than to broadly imply it makes people stupid (Felix, for instance, we are carefully told, was right-wing on his Instagram but not openly racist or antisemitic, thereby absolving narrator/author of any responsibility to out him). There’s nothing interesting in the writing. It sounds like a flatter version of the sort of testimonials — “it happened to me!” — that used to be a big thing on the Internet. Disgust can be a powerful motivator for interesting, passionate language, from Juvenal’s time to Joan Didion’s. But it doesn’t help here, presumably because making writing actually interesting would be participating in the game of communicating with other people, which in turn would spoil the illusion of aloof superiority which is Oyler’s real ethos and her narrator’s, too.

Oyler titles one chapter “Maybe If I Wrote Like This I Would Understand Them.” “Like this” is writing accounts of her dates in Berlin, where she does some light lying (really, any millennial who grew up with the Internet and any creativity has lied more and better than the narrator, or Felix the arch-liar for that matter), not in chronological order but theming dates according to the signs of the zodiac. The “them” in the title is, basically, women. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the main thing giving emotional backstop to Oyler’s performance of intellectuality and literary potential is that she is, as the cliche used to go, “not like the other girls.” She doesn’t wear her ever-so-mediated feelings on her sleeves and she won’t bore you about Beyoncé. She’s just barely clever enough to avoid trying to be “one of the boys,” but especially given that “the boys” (understood as youngish white or white-adjacent literary fiction types) basically don’t meaningfully contribute to English language letters these days, it wouldn’t help her if she tried, not with the market she’s trying to get over. Again, think Sontag or Didion- the woman above it all. That’s basically what’s going on here. I thought the zodiac-themed chapter was the best chapter in the book, in no small part because by going on a bunch of dates we met a bunch of characters. They weren’t good characters, the strangling solipsism of this book prevents that, but at least they weren’t the narrator or Felix. *’

Dana: We’ll all remember this moment for the rest of our lives! It was dramatic, it was visual…
Octavio: It was stupid.
Dana: It WAS stupid! But it was also THEATER!

-Hamlet 2 (2008)

This is the second of three nonfiction “beach reads” I decided to listen to this summer, in what now seems like an ill-conceived attempt to, I don’t know, juice interest in even my tiny review audience. It was based on a jibe from an old friend of mine about how I read too much advanced stuff. Probably not a ton of people read this on the beach. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a few do! Jia Tolentino is a popular writer on the Internet. I didn’t know she was a target for Lauren Oyler’s critical scorn when I set up a pattern that would have me listen to first “Fake Accounts” and then “Trick Mirror.” Just one of those “happy little accidents” I guess.

Tolentino and Oyler have a fair amount in common. They’re both younger millennial women who both once wrote for now-defunct women-oriented online publications (Jezebel and Broadly, respectively) and who went to elite colleges (UVA and Yale, respectively- in her review of this book, Oyler sneers that Tolentino made sure we knew she got into Yale… and a quick googling reveals that Oyler actually did go to Yale… google really wracks hell on certain snobbery patterns and you’d think “digital natives” who write for a living would grasp that, and yet, and yet, and yet!). They are both now reasonably major writers in their own respective rights. Both cover what could be called the “American awful” beat (“Fake Accounts” dwells on Berlin but has next to nothing to say about Germans), which has swallowed up so much of contemporary literary writing, both fiction and non-. It’s worth noting both are conventionally attractive women (another thing Oyler sneers at Tolentino for noticing about herself, not like Oyler doesn’t pose for the camera too)- it seems like a trend, millennial literary fiction writers having it going on in the looks department.

“Trick Mirror” is not a novel but a set of essays. Had some of them been online before? Probably? They all interweave first person narrative with exposition and analysis based on reporting or research. Like the subtitle suggest, they all discuss self-delusion. There’s the delusion that the Internet or self-improvement can make us happy, the (good?) delusion that MDMA can connect you with others and/or the godhead, the delusion that Tolentino’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, is a place dedicated to learning and gentility when really women get raped all the time (and one woman deluded herself into thinking she had been raped, sold the story to Rolling Stone, and helped perpetuate a delusion that campus rape is all lies and hype), etc etc.

The essays are pretty good. Oyler’s not wrong that Tolentino isn’t always particularly precise in her use of language and often brings things back around to herself. Well… she seems to be an interesting person! Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Houston, religious school, brief stint on reality tv, successful writer, she either is interesting or is capable of making her experiences interesting. She interweaves a lot of material into her essays, like when she discusses Houston’s religiosity, its history of drug-fueled “chopped and screwed” rap, and her own experience with MDMA in one essay.

I remember my dad coming to a Thomas Frank talk with me, maybe ten years ago or more. Dear old earnest baby boomer Dad walks up to Frank at the end of the talk, big smile on his face, thrusts his hand out to the author, and says “ok- what do we do about it?” in reference to whatever DC Gomorrah situation Frank had laid out. Frank laughed. He didn’t know. Not his business! He’s a critic. Especially now, alienated by the excesses of the “woke capital”/Russiagate/internet-liberal crowd like so many lefty scribblers have been, he’s less interested in solutions than ever before. At the time, I was lightly embarrassed. Now I’m a little more in my dad’s camp, especially as I’ve seen some of the lefty heroes of that time, including Frank, descend towards (or all the way into) a crankdom fueled by premature hopelessness.

Split the difference- I don’t expect a critic to append proposed legislation to their essays (you’ll notice I don’t). I would say it would make sense for a critic — especially one who calls themselves a socialist and/or anticapitalist, as Tolentino does a few times in this book — to at least gesture in the direction of how to fight. All too often, Tolentino throws up her hands, accedes her own complicity in eating Sweetgreen’s antihumanist salads or enjoying weddings, and collapses into miserabilism- we’re stuck with the system because the system is us. Don’t do it, Jia! You’ve got more power than you know! It’s not as though the early Christians didn’t obey Roman law most of the time, or the Russians who stormed the Winter Palace didn’t buy stuff… you can snarf your Sweetgreen and get to work pointing us where to take our pitchforks! Her work on “Free Britney” isn’t a bad start, and her chapter on “difficult women” — both a genuine feminist veneration object and one extremely easy to capture to the orbit of the sort of power that crushes the lives of everyday women — is a good one.

I do wonder, though… how much can one be part of “the zeitgeist” and still recognize within oneself the power, as part of a collective, to change it? Especially this zeitgeist, which seems to fetishize overawe in the face of complexity and of the power of the elite? I draw inspiration from the many “extremely online” people I know who joke about the brain rot it imposes but still do the work, organizing, agitating, fighting. I guess it’s more of a “me” problem. Probably I’m just enough of a little boy, playing soldiers on my atlas while my sisters watch 90210 (note- I watched too, I still remember most of the cast members, not trying to snob my dear sisters), dreaming of better (and bloodier) drama than beautiful people hurting each other’s feelings, that certain aspects of the zeitgeist will always elude me… ah well.

Like I said, I like this book, but chain listening to this book and Oyler’s before it, and reading Oyler’s criticism, brought up an unpleasant vista in my mind. The relationship between the two in the sphere of literature reminded me of nothing so much as two of the common types you see at millennial house parties. Tolentino would be the person who shows up midway through, possibly already drunk and/or high, and grabs all the attention by talking a mile a minute, name-dropping, and apologizing for talking about themselves so much whilst keeping on doing so. Oyler is the person in the corner snickering about what a dumbass everyone at this lame party is. You can go over and snicker with them, but you know they think you’re just as much of an idiot, if not more, and you know if they threw a party it’d be at least as bad. And you know if you throw your own, better party, which one you’d rather invite- anyway, I do. ****

SPECIAL DOUBLE REVIEW – Oyler, “Fake Accounts” and Tolentino, “Trick Mirror”

Update on places where I update

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Update on places where I update

Review- Buckley, “God and Man at Yale”

William F. Buckley, “God and Man at Yale” (1951) – One conservative archetype we don’t pay enough attention to is that of the tattle-tale. Especially given the way that a lot of American conservatives like to pose as tough guys and the way a lot of liberals also delight in tattling (though usually to a Great Schoolmarm in the Sky, who like most gods is curiously indifferent to their petitioners), this gets lost in the shuffle. But Bill Bennett made his bones in the conservative movement for ratting out a college roommate for smoking weed (only to wind up a degenerate gambler himself). William F. Buckley, for his part, got famous by writing this book snitching on his alma mater, Yale, for not teaching traditional virtues.

Gotta say I have more sympathy for Bennett’s pothead roommate than whoever was running Yale in 1951, but tattling on behalf of “virtue” as understood by a rich twenty-something… that’s not easy to stomach for two hundred pages. And Buckley is very explicit that snitching is what he’s doing. The book is addressed to the alumni and, especially, the trustees of Yale. If they only knew how little Yale was upholding it’s supposed values of Christianity and individualism, they’d come around and crack the whip, get all the commies and atheists out or anyway, provide “balance.”

It’s weird for a few reasons. First, Buckley leads with religion, and how Yale’s religion classes don’t teach religious faith but rather criticize religions as bodies of doctrine and social practice, a lot of the teachers are atheists, etc etc. Reading it seventy years later, it’s hard to get into the headspace, harder than most conservative writing. Religious faith on the part of the WASP-y elite Yale still very much catered to at the time had been waning for a long time by the time Buckley was writing, and didn’t get any healthier after. This decline hasn’t seemed to have hurt conservative politics, or American fortunes in the Cold War, as much as Buckley hinted it might. It’s even weirder when you consider Buckley was a Catholic. Yale was never supposed to teach his kind of religion. But I guess he thought it was the kind of material that would get the old stuffed shirts who act as trustees in the Ivy League fired up.

Then there’s the stuff on economics and social science. The thing is, it’s Yale in 1951. There aren’t any communists. It’s just liberals. They’re broadly skeptical about a lot of things (could probably have used more of that, honestly), including the free market. They had just witnessed the Great Depression and the ways in which government spending got the country back on its feet. No one is calling for workers to seize the means of production. But Buckley is wounded on behalf of the besmirched honor of the markers and the wealthy anyway, for every snide remark Samuelson or whoever (no one’s idea of a screaming lib) put in a textbook. It’s just such picayune stuff.

To the extent this book really has importance beyond launching Buckley’s career, it’s as a chapter in redefining the liberal enemy for the American right. That higher education would go on to become a perpetual target for the right when it looked to drum up cheap heat doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s also part of the game of ambiguity Buckley seems to have played his whole career in terms of negotiating with the far right and it’s concepts. In this book, liberals are the target because they sap America’s moral fiber, leaving it weak in the face of communism. If Yale men don’t say their prayers and learn free enterprise, how could they possibly compete with the Russkies (Yale was and is a prime recruiting ground for the CIA, as Buckley well knew… but maybe early CIA agents weren’t the best example of how to successfully stand up to the Soviets)? Buckley never says why his professors at Yale would do such a thing. He doesn’t come out and call them communists. He leaves it ambiguous. People can fill in what they like.

Seventy years of this bullshit, and the idea that liberalism is all a “cultural Marxist” (read “sneaky Jewish”) plot is now basically accepted by many “mainstream” conservatives. I remember when Buckley’s reputation was as the man who routed the Birchers and the Klansmen from the postwar conservative movement, making it “respectable” (never mind his remarks about the civil rights movement or gay people). He was what online reactionaries today would call an “optics cuck.” Except, he won, and helped define what conservatism would look like for the next fifty years, so I guess he was more of an “optics chad.” And he left the door wide open for the ideological descendants of the Birchers to come back. The ideas didn’t change- just the packaging.

As far as the experience of reading this book goes, Buckley was supposed to be a hot shit prose writer, very “witty.” Well, I’ve read less witty books, to be sure, and this one zipped by reasonably quickly, but I still wasn’t especially impressed. In many ways, he’s not out to impress people like me. He was out to lay the groundwork for a movement. I’m not sure what lessons are really applicable- “snitch to some rich people about meaningless culture war horseshit” isn’t really applicable to my side, alas. **

Review- Buckley, “God and Man at Yale”

Review- Fortner, “Black Silent Majority”

Michael Javen Fortner, “Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment” (2015) – This is an interesting and frustrating book, seemingly more based on a gap than on a finding. It brings home a lot of uncomfortable realities that our political habits — especially the widespread habit, on the left, center, and right, of assuming the “real” people are with them implicitly — evade. But it does not do what it’s author sets out to do.

Who is responsible for mass incarceration? Even conservatives increasingly agree that our justice system is a shambles and a shame. Most historians and social scientists who write about mass incarceration seem to agree that white reaction is at fault- presented with the upheavals of the black freedom movement and other social changes (including a rising crime rate), conservative politicians promised white voters they would restore control (and discipline “those people”) with massive increases in police, prisons, and punishment in general. There seems to be more debate about whether this truly constitutes a continuation of Jim Crow, ala popular political writer Michelle Alexander, or not, than whether that story is accurate.

Political scientist Michael Javen Fortner sets out to do something between complicate and overthrow that story. He does this in the name of “restoring agency” to working- and middle-class black people who called for more policing and harsher penalties for crimes committed in their neighborhoods. Fortner’s case study is the politics of crime and punishment in postwar New York City. A number of black civic leaders in the city, mostly ministers, backed Governor Nelson Rockefeller as he executed a “heel turn” of sorts- liberal Republican turned architect of some of the most repressive, brutal drug laws in the country, passed in 1973.

The impulse here is clear: disillusion liberals and radicals (implicitly white, as they seem to always be in this book) who might be reading the book from their cherished notions of an authentic black working-class subject who backs their efforts and implicitly agrees with them about stuff. Black people get upset about crime, Fortner points out, experience more of it than white people generally do, and turn to the conventional remedies — police and prisons — for relief. Fortner doesn’t defend the carceral state but insists denying black involvement in it denies black agency and distorts the tasks involved in repairing the situation.

The problem here is that notions of “real” people following one or another politics can cut a lot of different ways. Speaking as a socialist organizer, I can tell you, for every collegiate lefty who fondly believes in a multiethnic queer working class just champing st the bit to fight cops and read Lenin under their leadership, there’s an (equally overeducated, usually) twitter-bound lefty who sincerely believes there’s a blue-collar, implicitly white, mass of ex-factory workers who would become socialists if only they didn’t have to think about they/them pronouns, and who would provide them with the masculine approval they failed to secure from their fathers. This shit is just endemic.

Fortner doesn’t avoid it. He doesn’t really prove that the black masses he projects onto think or thought as he claims they did (and, implicitly, do). It’s hard to really prove these things, generally- one of the pitfalls of people-based politics. Fortner proves that Harlemites interviewed by magazines at the time were upset about crime and mad at criminals. He also shows that some ministers and local politicos in Harlem were willing to go along with a powerful politician, Nelson Rockefeller, who had to seem tough on crime in order to compete with up-and-coming right-wingers in the Republican Party like Ronald Reagan (and who didn’t give a shit about black lives). There’s some interesting stuff here about how black people saw black criminals as threatening the gains of the WWII and civil rights periods that some black Harlemites saw. How representative were such people of black opinion? Whose to say? No one, in the end. Fortner further writes that people who opposed ramping up police power, like “white liberals” and black radicals like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, didn’t represent many people in Harlem. That, he doesn’t prove. At the end of the day, the assertions aren’t all that different from those of the abolitionists at whom he wags his finger.

Well… what did the people of Harlem believe or want at the time? It’s hard to say. There were a lot of them, it was a while ago now, and, this seems important but hard to actualize, it seems likely that most people of all classes and races don’t have especially coherent politics. That doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or stupid or don’t know their interests, though that describes plenty of people (a progressively lower number for each adjective, in my opinion). It just means they don’t think that much about or that rigorously about politics. This makes sense, given how politics usually is in most places- a plaything of the elite where they figure out how to screw over everyone else, with a few do-gooders on the margins trying to change things and generally failing in embarrassing fashion.

Split the difference- we, those of us who organize, can’t just fit our politics to what we think “the people” want. There’s no real way to know, and if there was, we shouldn’t do that anyway, because popular approval doesn’t make something right. We should try to convince people of what we believe (and listen to others when they have ideas that are worth having). But we also have to listen. Listening isn’t the same thing as agreeing. But people — across the political spectrum — become so enamored with their picture of a mass that agrees with them, and with a wicked minority that doesn’t, that it becomes tempting to cast potential members of that mass who disagree on some things into the wicked minority, secure in the “knowledge” that the “real people” are with you on what might actually be a fairly extended limb.

Especially with a problem like crime, it’s easy for leftists to handwave it when conservatives get as febrile as they do about the issue, and when crime rates have been low for a while. It’s easy to mock rich suburban white people terrified that MS-13 is going to steal their aboveground pool. But criminal violence and damage does happen, it disproportionately affects poor people and people of color, and whether the crime rate is objectively going up or down doesn’t make people whose lives are hurt by crime feel better about it. That doesn’t mean we should uphold the carceral state, which just brings more violence to these communities. It means we’d better be ready to take the problems involved seriously and be goddamned good and ready to implement our better solutions when we have the chance. Fortner probably would have been better off writing about that than this, but it’s a good reminder in any event. ***

Review- Fortner, “Black Silent Majority”

Review- Corey, “Nemesis Games”

James S.A. Corey, “Nemesis Games” (2015) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Ehhhhhh I did not like this one as much. It feels like the Coreys have gotten sick of the workaday space world of “The Expanse” series and are throwing it away. I guess that’s not that bad- the world is fine but not something to which I feel great attachment. But in this one they tried to do too much with too little and it just wasn’t that great.

To explain what happens in “Nemesis Games” I’ll need to talk more about the spaceship crew-ersatz family at the core of the Expanse series. I haven’t done this before because most of the characters involved are boring. Admittedly, I’ve written about main character perspective-dullard Holden in these reviews, but he’s unavoidable. Like the Game of Thrones series, all of the chapters in the Expanse books are told from the perspective of a rotating set of characters. Each book has Holden as a perspective character, plus a few new ones. This one retains Holden, but the other perspective characters are the other crew on his ship, the ragtag chosen family of the “Rocinante.” There’s his girlfriend Naomi, his engineer/go-to thug Amos, and his pilot Alex. Naomi is strong and sensible in that stock scifi lady way, Amos is a tough guy who has “no moral core” save for loyalty to the crew and sentimentality about kids (which is to say he has all the moral core readers expect), Alex has… a Texas accent, because Texans settled Mars early? You can see why I didn’t dwell on them before. They’re fine for what they are but you don’t read these books for the character study.

We start off with everyone scattering! Doing errands. Naomi has a mysterious summons to her Asteroid Belt home. Alex goes to Mars to say sorry to an ex. Amos departs for Earth to bury one friend and visit another in jail. Holden is left alone out in space to bother people. Then some shit goes down! But alas, other than a sense of general frenetic activity, this shit is not well laid out. Someone’s stealing spaceships, and someone wants Naomi to do something sketchy, and then asteroids start landing on Earth! It’s all connected, somehow. Shit is getting ugly!

The problem is, none of it feels earned. I don’t want to say “real,” though verisimilitude can be an issue too. The main thing is this- the baddies (spoilers, if you care) are rogue militant Asteroid Belt settlers and some dudes from the Martian space navy. To the extent this has any basis in what came before in the books at all, it’s in one of the weakest points of the Coreys worldbuilding. Earth, Mars, and the Belt are depicted as all basically having Earth-country-style nationalisms. The Belters in particular feel put upon by the Earthers and Martians. But it always felt superficial- the Belters have silly argot and accents, part Hispanic, part South Asian, and are portrayed as hardscrabble due to living on asteroids and space stations. Especially now that the “gates” opened in previous books and settlers can go to other solar systems, the whole Belt way of life looks pointless, as does terraforming Mars. Well… it’s hard to suspend disbelief when you realize that such programs were always pointless, given that they were supposedly impelled by “overpopulation” and welfare statism on Earth. The Coreys just kind of hand-waved most of that away with stuff about the innate desire for “frontier living” etc.

I didn’t buy it, but I didn’t have to for most of the books. In this one, I was much more pressured to buy, because it formed the motivation for this random Belt faction coming out of nowhere and pulling off all kinds of crazy shit and doing genocidal asteroid damage to Earth. It strained credulity in other ways, too. We’ve followed the head of the “Outer Planets Alliance,” a Belter terrorist group turned political party, since the first book, and now we’re supposed to believe this wise, badass warrior could get completely flummoxed by the existence of a splinter faction? It’s hinted that this faction had some kind of major outside help, and I guess it’s from the Martian navy? But beyond similar hard-to-believe politics stuff (that, again, happens under the nose of their government and takes them completely by surprise), there’s no set up. It’s just kind of lame, and even hard to follow at times.

The book’s not all bad. There’s some decent action sequences. The stuff with Amos on Earth, where he needs to survive the apocalypse alongside a girl who tried to kill his whole crew a few books back, was fun. In general, it was ok seeing some of the old viewpoint characters again, as they get swept into the big drama. The sense of scale is admirable. I’m glad the Coreys decided to be ambitious. It just seems their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Their sense of big picture just isn’t there, and it reminds me of George R.R. Martin, their maitre, in a bad way. I wonder if there’s a genealogy- the coup/conspiracy-based strategizing of the likes of French revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui and the “propaganda of the deed” of turn of the century anarchists, which gets bowdlerized into the deeds of villains in early pulp fiction, which turns into an understanding of how villainous plans and politics just work… because none of it really passes muster.

Neither does the philosophizing about human nature, it’s supposed tribalism, etc., that the Coreys put in assorted characters’ mouths. It’s a funny coincidence that those memes with Vin Diesel going on about the power of Family came out when I was listening to this, because to the extent the series has a message, it’s basically the message of those memes. The ultimate bad guy (introduced in this book out of nowhere) is someone who doesn’t understand, who corrupts, family (and is Naomi’s abusive ex, natch- the Coreys don’t do the worst possible job with that relationship but it feels as pro-forma as a lot of the rest of the setup here). That’s fine for an end-of-movie/book/season speech you can zone out for. It does not for great scifi plotting make. ***’

Review- Corey, “Nemesis Games”

Review- Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man”

Albert Jay Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” (1943) – Sometime in the late nineteenth century, enough switches flipped in the heads of enough of the Western bourgeoisie that a general societal freakout occurred. That class of society, then at the height of its powers, and almost certainly more powerful than any group had ever been in human history, suddenly came to believe itself beset by dangers and in the grips of irreversible decline. To the extent that this was true, their attitudes towards the situation helped bring it about. I tend to date this freakout to the revolt and suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871, but more than just politics went into it. The pace of change in general — political, social, economic, technological — caught up to the people supposedly in charge, and when they realized they weren’t as in charge as they thought… a lot of things we see in culture, from corn flakes (invented to keep boys from masturbating, a concern of the freakout period) to the slaughters in the trenches of WWI, can, arguably, be attributed to the freakout.

Albert Jay Nock was born in 1870, just as the freakout was starting (maybe), and died in 1945, just as the freakout’s (maybe) ultimate fruit, the Second World War, ended. He was in position to watch the whole thing and give his peculiar takes. That he is known today, to the extent he’s known at all, as one of the godfathers of American libertarianism is both a shame, and also his own fault. He was more than that, but that he became that posthumously comes down to his failings. Libertarianism, for its part, became one of the coping strategies for other eras of crack-up, the aftermath of the sixties and that of the early twenty-first century (assuming we decide not to lump them in together).

What Nock was was a genuine man of letters, and “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man” is in most respects the story of his learning to be such, and what he did once he became one. In this way, it tracks alongside “The Education of Henry Adams,” and Nock cites his fellow cultural pessimist at several points in the text, though he doesn’t try for anything like Adams’ experiments with prose structure, or his gravitas. That cuts both ways. It is nice that Nock has something of a sense of humor and is admirably direct; but he can be direct in some garbage directions and ultimately this work, while fascinating, has flaws that drag it beneath the (extremely high) standard Adams set. Later for that.

Nock grew up in Brooklyn and in an unnamed Great Lakes town, in what appear to be what we would call “upper middle class” circumstances or above. If he ever needed to worry about making a living, or ever had to seriously curtail a lifestyle of travel and good eating, he doesn’t report it. He describes an idyllic childhood of good wholesome fun with little governance from the adult world. He goes away to school and becomes “classically educated.” He is taught Latin, Greek, math, and left to his own devices for most of the rest. In many respects, that is the pivot of his whole story.

Classical education has meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To Nock, it meant the key to history. The Greeks and the Romans tried everything in their roughly two thousand years. They learned all one needed to learn about how societies function. Everything else is either just technical improvement, or balderdash (not sure if Nock used the word, but he would use that kind of word). The human condition is what it is, and hasn’t changed since the days of Plato, or much before then either.

Bertolt Brecht, the kind of poet Nock (who could read German) would probably dismiss out of hand, wrote: “I would happily be wise./The old books teach us what wisdom is:/To retreat from the strife of the world/To live out the brief time that is your lot/Without fear/To make your way without violence/To repay evil with good —/The wise do not seek to satisfy their desires,/But to forget them./But I cannot heed this:/Truly I live in dark times!” Other than the forgetting desires bit — Nock has an earthy enjoyment of sex and food — “the old books” taught Nock more or less exactly that. But unlike Brecht’s narrator in “To Posterity,” he keeps on heeding. That cushion of family money probably helps, as does the option to be on the other side of the Atlantic from a lot of the risky business.

How to explain the conditions of the 1870-1945 (i.e. almost exactly Nock’s lifespan) freakout from a classical perspective? Nock never lays it out programmatically, exactly, in what is, after all, a personal memoirs. The two problems he cites most often are “economism” and “statism,” which mostly means treating the progress of either economy or state capacity as good things in and of themselves. Nock can believe this because, as becomes more and more open as the book goes on, Nock has a limited understanding of what constitutes “human.” That’s a nice way of saying he believes most people are less than human. Nock takes from the classics that culture is, essentially, for the elite. Most people can’t benefit from it- one of the claims he throws out there like a rock (and here, Nock is very much a father of libertarianism, a troll’s politics) is the notion that mass literacy is unhelpful, in fact hurtful in that it drives out good literature. The story of history is the story of elites producing culture, the masses enjoying some of the benefits in a passive way, and then for some reason, a combination of uppity masses and either weak or traitorous elites opening the gates and letting the barbarians in.

“What’s to stop the elite from just exploiting the masses, then?” Well, “nothing” is the real answer, but Nock would say something about how laws and politics are thin protections in any event, and really what makes positive change are morals and manners. Morals and manners, in turn, are the products of society and its refinement. Allow society to produce its own brilliance (in the way free marketeers, like many of the people who today think, wrongly, Nock would give them the time of day, think markets can do) and it will take care of things. But hand that power over to the state and you get rule by armed thugs and the society goes to shit. Where “economism” enters into this — where it comes from, why anyone chose to practice it if they had everything going so well in the fifteen-hundreds or early nineteenth century, which seem to be Nock’s historical happy places — is a bit of a mystery. Nock doesn’t come out and blame the Jews, like Henry Adams came close to doing, but you can see how followers might.

As you can probably tell, I don’t believe in any of this. And it wears very thin towards the end, when we leave Nock’s more interesting, younger experiences and basically go into a period where he’s an established journalist and essayist, and details how right he’s been about everything for the last forty years. But for the first two thirds or so of the book- let’s put it this way. In many respects, the saving grace of this memoirs is that Nock is not as much of a classicist as he thinks he is. Sure, he can pepper his works with untranslated (I have an old copy, not the new, hand-holding editions published by libertarian propaganda outfits, and am just fine with that) Greek and Latin and talk as though — even believe — that modern culture is trash, etc. But he’s still an American, a product of what he himself calls an entirely “economistic” culture, a child of the bourgeoisie, not even the ersatz aristocracy that gave us Henry Adams.

If he were just that classicist applying his (mediocre, pre-Nietzsche) classicism to his times, that wouldn’t be worth much, probably. As it stands, his Americanism, and his embeddedness in his times, both (further) warps his ideas and also means he can say some things that are specific to a time and place, and provide insights into those times and places, as well as into politics and culture more generally. Among other things, it’s a bit of a laugh when, along with the lessons imparted by the classics, Nock declares that things like Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”) and something he calls Epstean’s Law (after a friend who may or may not be a time traveling Jeffrey), that basically means everyone is lazy, are basic, ahistorical principles of human life. That’s some good old American dumbassery, right there. That’s one of the basic points Nietzsche tries to get across about classical civilization: they were different enough from us that the way a given user of their thought tries to wedge them into their situation tells us more, in many respects, than what the classics have to say about any given situation.

So what does the juxtaposition of classicism and good old American urdummheit — Nock spends a lot of time telling us about his American forebears, and indulges in a fair amount of Americana-nostalgia, for a guy who also pooh-poohs our “civilization” or lack thereof — tell us about Nock and his times? Well, for one thing, this “civilization” vs “state” vs “society” business is important, less for any insight provided by using any of these floating signifiers and more for how some people, in Nock’s day and our own, understand historical change. You don’t have to believe that “society” is an independent actor, opposed to the state, and the sole source of human goodness to think that changes in social behavior — manners, mores, arts, etc — are determinative (though it probably helps). As silly as it may sound to my mostly materialist, radical readership, not only is that a thing a fair number of intellectuals, from conservatives and liberals to even some utopian socialists, believe, but it is also something like common sense to a shockingly high number of people, if you talk much outside of said materialist/radical circles. This is bad (though sometimes generative) thought. But we can’t ignore it. Powerful people (and powerful amounts of less powerful people) believe it and guide their actions by it. And there’s a grain of truth- what we could call “social microphysics” can be important. Some of the excesses of the woke left can probably be attributed to the ways they are waking up to that fact, with little in the way of guidance…

There’s also the question of education. I think Nock does hit on a tendency to think of knowledge as only being good for strict utilitarian purposes. You learn what you need to learn to serve a function. I guess I wind up echoing that, too, when I don’t mean to, by saying there is a purpose to learning things that aren’t directly “useful” i.e. will allow you to serve a purpose. I felt what he said about a classical education teaching him how to think critically, in a way learning how to be a socially usefully widget wouldn’t do. I just differ on some important points: I do think everyone benefits from education and critical thinking, and I don’t think the Greeks and Romans had some monopoly on teaching about the basic elements of life. I actually think learning critical history — of the whole world — does better what Nock says classical education does, but I guess I’m biased.

While we’re at it, is there much of a point to reading this book beyond what we might learn from it? Well, to my surprise, I found there was. Among other things, classical education seemed to have done pretty well for Nock the writer. Until he gets really pedantic in the back third, his prose quality carried me along. He vividly invokes his social environments, even as you squint at some of his claims. Among other things, he gets across the feel of “reform” circles — he was a follower of Henry George (up until his cultural pessimism swallowed him), a fact some of his libertarian epigones today might have a hard time really swallowing — in the early twentieth century brilliantly… that is, of others trying desperately to negotiate the freakout. In contrast to some other readers, I love books that send me to Wikipedia — which I carry in my pocket, after all — to look up their references. It points to a whole world, now almost lost. One of the ironies of reading this is that Nock thought that truth floated free of context, but those who would try to apply his thought bowdlerize it mercilessly to fit it into their very different contexts… as Nock presumably did to the Greeks and Romans. And so it goes. That is culture, that is civilization, and that is part of why I play this game. ****’

Review- Nock, “Memoirs of a Superfluous Man”

Review- Littell, “The Company”

Robert Littell, “The Company” (2002) – You know, the right work could make me eat my words, but I feel confident in saying that eight hundred pages is too long for a spy novel. I picked this book up because of the name- Jonathan Littell wrote a great book called “The Kindly Ones” and I was curious if Robert was related. He is- Jonathan’s dad, and an experienced spy fiction writer and journalist. I bought it because I am interested in the history and culture of the CIA, and like a good spy story. I guess it boils down to a long-term interest in the ways in which culture informs strategy. The CIA had (to an extent, has) a weird WASP-y culture, the kind of guys who care about abstract expressionist painting while also having relatives on the United Fruit board. Spy agencies in the Anglo world are basically where rich establishment families drop off sons who are too dumb for the family business, too weird for politics (back when that was a consideration), and too hyper for the Protestant clergy. A subculture worth examining!

Well… I think Littell tries, on both the cultural end and the genre goods end. A generous reading would say he falls between the two stools, but I think that’s a little too generous. For one thing, he definitely buys the supposed pathos of the Cold War-era CIA. Smart, soulful men (and the occasional woman), seeking truth via a mission to expand freedom, getting their noses rubbed in the grim realities of politics and espionage and waxing lyrical about it over the inevitable cocktails… give me a break.

The funny thing is, Littell could not convincingly get across the idea that his characters were that smart. He accidentally undermined his own premise, but not enough to save the novel. The closest to a main character we get is Jack McAuliffe, recruited into the Company off the Yale rowing team in the fifties. He’s a dashing, horny Irish-American who’s portrayed as a natural spy but who actually fucks up a lot and is poorly-written to boot. His WASP and his Jewish friend — covering the bases — aren’t much better, as spies or as characters. Harvey Toritti, a pastiche of various real spies, is maybe a little better — not quite as motivated by his dick, as various tedious schools of mid century pop psychology insists men, especially men of action, are — but is also a ludicrous spy, a swaggering Falstaffian gunslinger and whiskey swiller who is also magically right about nearly everything. But Littell clearly thinks of them as tragic heroes. They’re not. They’re farcical goons. You could make a good story out of that — the Coens did, in “Burn After Reading” — but not if you don’t see them for what they are.

The plot is basically the Cold War’s greatest hits, except skipping over a bunch of the stuff that would depress someone who sees the Cold War as basically noble, like the Vietnam War. The characters all take part in things like the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring, the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Bay of Pigs, the attempted coup against Gorbachev, etc. Littell gets some stuff right, like the Kennedys as feckless dilettantes, some stuff crashingly wrong, like when he has Dulles refer to Mossadegh as a “Muslim fundamentalist.” The CIA seeing the progressive modernizer Mossadegh as a fundamentalist… well, they could get facts that wrong, but in the fifties, the CIA would be about as scared of a Muslim fundamentalist as they would be of a vodou houngan, probably a little less. And he gets more stuff just silly, mainly as the rest of the world becomes a reflecting pool for sad American men. The Hungarian uprising is a good example. A tragedy, no doubt, bound to end badly- Imre Nagy, the socialist reformer, probably would have gotten it in the neck from Magyar fascists if the Soviets didn’t brutally crush the whole thing. But it’s played mainly as a heroic, last of the Mohicans stand that makes one spy big sad.

To the extent the Russians feature, it’s as a mirror to the Americans. There’s a KGB spy who’s kind of an alternate-universe McAuliffe, an adventurous nomenklatura fuckboy being played around by forces bigger than him as he seeks meaning through action. Russians can be tragic, too. Except all the Russians are ordered around by an antisemitic (of course) pedophile (you know, so you know he’s bad) master spy. Russia’s “natural” authoritarianism allows them to play the long game, you see, so this dude weaves various generational plots to bring down the CIA, the shield of America, etc etc. One way he does that is by encouraging the paranoia of James Jesus Angleton, a real guy and a real freak. Again, it could be kind of funny and interesting, but played for tragedy — and without dynamic enough action to keep it interesting on that level — it just does t work. Especially not for eight hundred damn pages! I might try one of Daddy Littell’s earlier spy novels, I’m told they’re slimmer and faster, but this one was pretty bad. **

Review- Littell, “The Company”

Review- Smith, “The Probability Broach”

L. Neil Smith, “The Probability Broach” (1979) – A friend of mine who is a recovering “anarcho-capitalist” tried reading this, a depiction of an alternate-history free market utopia and one of the flagship works of libertarian scifi, during the height of his belief in its ideology, and couldn’t get through it, he found it was so bad. Well, now that I’ve read it, I can understand why. Boy howdy, was this a stinker.

A twist on one of my usual disclaimers: I’d love to find really batshit visions I disagree with explored in writing, and I’m not a stickler for plausibility in alternate history stories. I mean, I sort of am for myself, because I think it would be interesting to get a really rigorous, critical-historical take on the exercise, but I’ve obviously not accomplished that. Actually good alternate history stories like “Fire on the Mountain” and especially “The Man in the High Castle” have historical dynamics in their backstories that don’t really wash. But that’s all right. Alternate history stories are, naturally, more about us than about the past or it’s possibilities.

So it’s not really the implausibility of either the world Detective Win Bear goes to, not the one he leaves behind, that bothers me, though the patterns of implausibility in both cases indicate larger problems, like that the author is a dumbass ideologue of a dumb-assed ideology. Win Bear (he’s a Native American, always good to have them on side when you’re trying to make some fatuous settler point) works for the Denver PD in a 1987 that sucks pretty hard, because it’s a conservstive libertarian fantasy of what they thought Carter-Mondale style liberalism was doing to the country. Everyone’s broke, you can’t smoke, maybe some other stuff that rhymes, bureaucrats everywhere, etc. Win has to investigate a murder of a physicist, then some people try to murder him, then of course the physicist was doing alternate world stuff, so he winds up in an alternate world. No one knows about cops, or Denver, in this alternate world! People are happy, and also, for some reason, chimpanzees and gorillas are people and they’re happy too! Everything is privatized, no one pays taxes, everyone is armed.

Do I sound tired to you at this point of the review, dear reader? That’s because I am. The problem with this book was less the world building and more just the complete shit quality of the prose, characterization, plotting, and exposition. Exposition is often a problem in scifi, and especially alternate history, so that’s relatively forgivable. Win has a tendency to get shot, and so while he’s healing up, he has people tell him about the alternate timeline he’s in. The “point of divergence” is that Albert Gallatin, known in our world as an ethnographer (i.e. had a creepy fixation on Native Americans) and Secretary of the Treasury, sides with the Whiskey Rebellion against George Washington’s efforts to enforce tax payments. They win, kill Washington, and almost literally everything is hunky-dory from that day onward. No more constitution (and I will say it is refreshing to encounter an American winger who doesn’t slavishly worship that document, not that what he wants is better), no more taxes, really no more government. Jefferson (!) fixes slavery with moral suasion. The Native Americans gladly sell their land (?!) to western settlers and assimilate. Canada and Mexico join up, voluntarily. The only problem is that followers of the exiled Alexander Hamilton, arch-governmentalist, occasionally show up and do a terrorism, and that provides what skeleton of plot exists in this book.

I would say some of that stuff — especially about race — borders on the offensive, and the offensively stupid. But that’s not really why the book is so bad. It’s an ideological Marty Stu story, which is the real problem. The expression “Mary Sue story” comes from fan fiction, where it was common for writers to insert idealized, flawless versions of themselves on the bridge of the Enterprise or whatever (and it was gendered- women writers were called out for it more often, even though the male equivalent, the Marty Stu, was probably just as widespread if not more so). That’s one of the sad things about really thoroughgoing, join-the-party stockpile-gold libertarianism- the only meaningful conflict they understand is, basically, “normal people versus busybodies.” This is probably one of the reasons why libertarians so often become bigots and fascists- the explanation to the question “of libertarian paradise is the default, why does it exist nowhere?” can very easily become “the Jews, duh,” because it’s not like there’s any other good explanation of what binds “the busybodies” together, especially if you explicitly reject class analysis. It’s one way in which libertarianism really is “classical liberalism” — that ideology’s refusal of conflict and tragedy, well after most liberals got the memo that “freedom” can’t fix everything and adapted.

That’s tragedy, maybe, but “The Probability Broach” is farce, and not a funny one. Statist terrorists keep trying to mess stuff up, both in our world and the libertarian paradise, and keep failing. They’re meant to be extraordinarily dangerous, but are also ludicrously incompetent- after all, if they were competent, they’d be libertarians, right? Compounding this, Smith is a terrible action writer. It’s an art, writing action scenes, and one Smith hasn’t learned. He mostly substitutes gore and endless gun pedantry (he is, of course, a gun pedant, the creepy kind who talks about defending women, when he also delights in depictions of women being harmed, because of a lack of guns, of course) for an ability to write action. It’s a detective story in which no detecting takes place, just bad guys falling into the hands of Win and his new alternate universe friends.

I gotta say, I never expected to find myself wishing I was reading Ayn Rand. But at least she could inject some passion into her work, whatever her many failings as a writer and thinker. Smith can’t even manage that. His writing has the tone of the asshole at the end of the bar who’s figured everything out so hard he never has to do anything, never leaves his hometown or does anything with his life because it’s all bullshit anyway. Give that asshole free reign of his resentments and a very odd historical education, and you’ve got this book. *

Review- Smith, “The Probability Broach”

Review- Ghosh, “The Glass Palace”

Amitav Ghosh, “The Glass Palace” (2000) – I haven’t looked far enough to say anything too definitive about it, but from where I sit, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh runs somewhere near the lead of the pack of contemporary literary writers in terms of talent and relevance. I’ve only read his historical fiction, but my understanding is he has also written nonfiction about climate change, which could be interesting and would certainly be a credit to his relevance, given how lackadaisical the literary response to climate change has been thus far. His historical fiction is quite good. The Ibex Trilogy, dealing with the period surrounding the Opium Wars, topped my best-of-fiction-reading list a few years ago. A lot of writers (well, a lot of publishers on behalf of a lot of writers) claim to tackle the interconnectedness that goes under the name “globalization,” but Ghosh actually does it, with verve, historical understanding, and a lack of pretense.

Among other things, Ghosh’s historical vision helps show us a basic fact about “globalization” that it seems younger people grasp more intuitively than those of us who remember the nineteen-nineties: that there’s nothing all that new about it. Global patterns of trade, migration, war, imperialism, communication, etc. have been critical to how life is lived at the very least since the circumnavigation of the globe five centuries ago, if not well before, depending on your definition of “global.” So, in the Ibex trilogy, we see globalization, nineteenth-century style, at the hands of capitalists and the British Empire destroying whole populations to make money off the opium trade. In “The Glass Palace,” we get a broader sweep of South Asian history, from the British invasion of Burma in the 1880s to World War II to a coda near the time Ghosh was writing.

That broad sweep means you don’t get the sort of finely-grained character work that characterizes much of literary fiction, but Ghosh gets his points across about most of his characters. We begin with Rajkumar, a Bengali boy who flees plague and washes up in Burma. He works and builds a fortune in the teak wood trade, a tough business involving elephants and transporting two-ton logs down rapid jungle rivers. He’s fixated on Dolly, a servant to the Burmese royal family, which was deposed when the British decided they wanted that teak trade all for themselves and added Burma to the empire. The British exile the royal family to a small town in India, but after Raj makes his fortune, he dresses up all nice, heads to India, and courts Dolly. At first she’s like “this is weird” but various characters interfere and she winds up returning to Burma with him, just as Raj expands into the rubber business, where there’s some real damn money.

Reviewers focus a lot on the Raj-Dolly relationship, and I think that’s because we get to know them before the deluge of other characters come in. Various relatives and children marry people and while most of them “make sense” there’s still a lot to keep track of as they make their way through Asia’s late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Raj makes a shit ton of money in rubber and establishes sons and in-laws in plantations in Malaya. Burma and Malaya both had an odd ethnicized division of labor, encouraged by the British playing their usual divide-and-conquer games. Indians, like most of the characters in the book, do most of the interfacing with imperial-backed capitalism. This means both that a few Indians like Raj make a lot of money, and many Indians toil in the plantations. “Natives” — Burmans, Malays, the assorted smaller ethnic groups those two used to lord it over before the a British came along — basically sit on the sidelines of capitalism. I get the impression this is because the British liked them doing their “traditional” thing and thought they were ill-suited for industrial labor (and plantations might be outdoors, but they involve producing commodities on industrial scale, with industrial labor discipline).

This inevitably leads the characters into the politics of the era in Asia. In typical depressing human fashion, the Burmans blame their downfall not on the British, who orchestrated it, but on the Indians, who the British employed as instruments in it. Meanwhile, more and more Indians are wondering why they play the roles the British scripted for them, and what an independent future might look like. These questions cause tensions and blow-ups in the extended clan. Raj just wants to make money, chill with Dolly, and secure his sons in business, and doesn’t take kindly when Dolly’s friend Uma starts asking tough questions about imperialism (and Raj’s questionable lord-of-the-manor pleasures). Uma charts a path across the Indian independence movement, from the militant (indeed, soldier-based, on the idea that they needed to convert the British-controlled Indian Army to make progress) Ghadar to the nonviolent Congress. Raj’s… nephew? I think? Arjun, meanwhile, joins that Indian Army in the thirties, as part of the first set of Indian commissioned officers. He’s proud at first, and takes well to British-style regimental life (bacon, beef, and all!).

But one cool thing about Ghosh- he doesn’t stint from portraying the ways things completely outside of anyone’s control direct people’s lives. Sometimes that uncontrollable love or whatever, so far, so literary, but more often, it’s economic and political forces. Two things spell doom for this rich clan’s various arrangements: the price of rubber, and Japanese imperialism. They’re almost entirely off-scene, but their power directs the action of the second half of the book. When rubber prices collapse during the Depression, the family’s fortunes tumble with them, and all those lovingly-described classic cars with maker names I never heard of seem like white elephants, even as they roll along on plantation rubber. Meanwhile, the Japanese smash the pretenses of British rule in Asia, seizing “impregnable” Singapore et al. Ghosh, and most of his characters, are under no illusions about the nature of Japanese conquest — one character shoots herself rather than be taken alive, and the Indians who abandon the British army for militancy become rapidly alienated with their Japanese patrons — but I couldn’t help but enjoy the British get theirs. Of course, again, it’s mostly Indians who suffer- even bluff Arjun has to think about what an Indian nation without an outside overlord might look like. He doesn’t know. Do any of us?

This is a pretty great book. That’s not to say it’s flawless. One flaw is personal for me- stories of “I was in love since childhood and made that love mine” weird me right the fuck out. I’m not talking high school sweethearts getting married, I’m talking like “we were destined to be together since pre-pubescence.” Admittedly, Raj and Dolly are roughly the same age, and Raj doesn’t consummate the relationship until they’re in their twenties, but still. Like I said, the characters sometimes get hard to keep track of, and I think it would’ve been better if Ghosh had ended the story with WWII, and not had a coda that hailed Aung San Suu Kyi as savior of Burma. Admittedly, it was 2000, and old Aung looked a lot better then, before she got into office and showed her clay feet, in the Rohingya crisis and elsewhere (not that I support the generals locking her up again). A work doesn’t need to be flawless to be great though, or worth reading for anyone interested in what literature can look like right now. ****’

Review- Ghosh, “The Glass Palace”

Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)” (2020) (narrated by Kevin Stilwell) – Why did I let you fucking jabronis talk me into beach reading? This fucking sucked. Jia Tolentino better be better or there’s gonna be hell to pay!

In all seriousness: if there’s a group of people who deserve to be spoken of (and to) smugly, it’s libertarian ideologues. I don’t mean guys who just like being left alone to enjoy drugs, guns, and fireworks, and haven’t developed a class analysis. I’m sympathetic to that position (but consider developing a class analysis, guys). I mean the people who really think they’ve figured something out when they decide “government” is the problem and “free” markets are the solution. Especially at this late date, as most of the smarter libertarians become liberals and the meaner ones becomes Nazis, there’s such an unconsidered, Panglossian quality to the whole thing, such a satisfaction with received ideas whilst spinning their wheels frantically to convince themselves they’re free-thinkers, that it’s hard to avoid smugness. Hell, they’re hardly strangers to smugness themselves.

But smugness doesn’t make for a readable work of extended prose. There might be a few prose masters who can pull it off, but it’s a hard sell, and Hongoltz-Hetling is no master. To be fair, he doesn’t seem like he’d claim to be one. He seems like an affable, agreeable sort, a New Hampshire-based journalist. His writing style would be totally appropriate to crafting articles on quirky local stories with some poignant, lightly humorous sentiment at the end. The problem is, he wrote a book that is basically that article-ending sentiment, and a more pressing problem is, I listened to the whole thing.

“A Libertarian Walked Into A Bear” is the story of the little town of Grafton, New Hampshire, primarily in the first two decades of the twenty-first century but ranging to the town’s founding near the time of the American Revolution and the decades in between as well. Grafton is way the hell out there in the woods, at least as far as the east coast of the US is concerned. There are bears. At first, the white settlers hunted the bears and sold their pelts, clearing land so as to farm the rocky bullshit soil of New England. When it turned out that northern New England was in fact a blind alley in continental settler expansion, Grafton began a long slow decline in population and wealth. Bears came back. There weren’t and aren’t resources to do anything about it, or about the town’s other problems. It sucks pretty hardcore for Grafton.

Exacerbating the issues and forming the center of this book was the Free Town Project, an effort by Internet-borne libertarians to settle in Grafton and make it a model libertarian burg. I don’t recall if Hongoltz-Hetling made the numbers clear, but somewhere between a few dozen and a few hundred libertarians answered the call in those halcyon Bush years, when libertarianism could pose as a viable path forward, before the financial meltdown and Black Lives Matter. Predictably, a great many pedants all moving to an isolated rural town didn’t make friends right away, despite newcomers and old hands agreeing that taxes suck (Grafton always hated taxes, as the author takes pains to point out, while smugly dissing the eighteenth century pioneer tax resistors’ bad spelling). As it turns out, New Hampshirites aren’t the native libertarians, just waiting for a spark from outside to ignore a bonfire of liberty. They’re mostly flinty Yankees who chose to live out of the way because they like living with people they always lived with and don’t like outsiders or change. Even when change means fewer taxes, a lot of people were resistant, especially when it was suggested by outsiders with a lot of other funny ideas.

Among other problems with this book, Hongoltz-Hetling does that annoying liberal thing where he accepts the libertarian “government versus liberty” framework, and expects to win the day by pointing out that “government” does good things and absence of it often causes problems. This is, in certain respects, “why don’t you move to Somalia if you hate government so much?” the book. It’s not like I like libertarians. I just hate shitty arguments, that don’t even have any juice to them anymore — I’ve never seen that line hurt a libertarian’s feelings — and especially hate them when they’re presented in a smug, “get a load of these freaks who hate the government!” tone.

There’s two related issues that compound these basic problems above and beyond the basic mediocrity of liberal political journalism. The first is that these freaks really aren’t that freaky. Hongoltz-Hetling puts a lot of weight on one founder of the project who turned out to be a pedophile… who was thrown out of the project before it really got underway (though more for optics reasons than anything else). The rest of the libertarians involved seem like fairly normal, if often pedantic and sometimes pretty gormless, white New Englanders of their generation. Some of them, like a guy who tries to create a church/free space but gets tripped up by taxes (and his refusal to apply for an IRS religious exemption), are even pretty sympathetic. Hongoltz-Hetling seems to be a canny enough writer to get that that guy and a few others are sympathetic, especially after church guy literally dies in a fire in said church. But that doesn’t change the fact that Hongoltz-Hetling looks down his nose at them, and expects us to do the same, from the extraordinarily short horse of contemporary liberalism.

The other problem is this- he does not make the case that libertarianism did that much to accelerate Grafton’s decline or exacerbate its bear problems. Grafton was declining when the libertarians got there. As the author took pains to point out, the locals always resisted the sort of taxation that might have made possible more public amenities that might induce people to move and/or remain there. The root problem really doesn’t seem to be ideology. The root problem seems to be economic marginality. The global economy doesn’t need anything Grafton produces, other than, perhaps, rural isolation for weirdos. Maybe if they had their shit together, the Graftonites could have plugged themselves better into an information/service economy, but that’s not entirely their fault. In their situation, considering what state and federal government generally does — tax their already poor farms, send their sons to war, and send money to develop towns on the opposite end of the country, like the booming Southwest (or research dollars to Dartmouth in nearby Hanover, NH) — you probably wouldn’t like government either. You don’t need to be a libertarian ideologue or servile to the rich to feel that way. The joke about libertarians moving to Somalia isn’t funny (to the extent it ever was) when you realize how badly imperialism and the Cold War screwed over that country, making the sort of “good government” American liberals take for granted impossible.

Of course, that’s not to say people can’t make bad situations worse. The closest thing to a real smoking gun Hongoltz-Hetling puts in the hands of the Free Town Project people (beside from insinuating that the church guy didn’t follow fire codes, without proving it) is that the libertarians encouraged a laissez-faire attitude towards trash disposal and the feeding of wild animals, thereby encouraging bears to become bolder. He lingers on the case of “Donut Lady,” a lady who fed bears donuts every day. The problem is, Donut Lady is a local, not a libertarian settler. Bears were already escalating, attacking pets, before the libertarians came. Moreover, the state, as Hongoltz-Hetling points out, does a shitty job of managing bears anyway, bound by muddled romantic notions of what wildlife “should be,” bureaucratic inertia, and funding issues. When locals take matters into their own hands and cull the bear population, Hongoltz-Hetling treats it like a war crime, when in other parts of the books he acts as though human-acclimated bears are in fact are war with us, and the Graftonite’s inability to do something about it shows their lack of civic virtue!

On top of that, Hongoltz-Hetling speculates that brain parasites from living around animals, especially cats (some prominent Graftonites in the book have cats), might be driving the madness he sees around him (but never conveys as being really mad- more just sad). I’ve literally heard altright guys make the same arguments about liberals and feminists (the trope of the crazy feminist cat lady). I’ve always said, frustrate a liberal long enough and he’ll break out the calipers and start doing biological determinism, but I’ve never seen them do it in response to a tiny group of hapless libertarians before. See something new every day, I guess.

Basically, this is some Daily Show-style profoundly inconsistent and incoherent slop, except not funny. “But the bears!” I can hear you say. “What about the bears, can’t they save the book?!” Well, reader, I give the book an extra half star, less for bear content — the author sees no or few bears and only intermittently passes on bear stories from his informants in a compelling fashion — than for llama content. He does tell one bravura anecdote about a woman’s pet llama rinsing a bear who wanders into her yard. That was cool. But otherwise, this was a shot at one of the fattest targets conceivable that lands flat on its face. **

Review- Hongoltz-Hetling, “A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear”