Anil Menon, “The Beast With Nine Billion Feet” (2009) – It’s actually almost pleasant to read a book that’s just not very good because it’s not very good, without some additional factor- disappointment, ideological madness, ubiquity. Upon googling the book a little more, it appears that it is meant to be a “young adult” novel. What does that even mean considering how many grown-ass adults read “YA”? But it makes sense. The protagonists are two kids growing up in Pune, India in 2040, and the prose is indeed simple enough for middle schoolers to get through probably (not that that isn’t true for plenty of adult novels, or that there aren’t smart middle schoolers, etc etc conceptual problems). Googling late informed me of the YA nature of this book, and googling (but apparently not enough) got me into it- specifically, googling “Indian science fiction.” I’m curious about scifi from outside the usual Anglo-American context, and reading the great Liu Cixin whetted my appetite further. This book came up.
Tara and Aditya are two kids growing up in future-Pune, thirteen and sixteen respectively. Their dad is a brilliant geneticist who had to go on the run because he supported a sort of free-software regime for genetic modification. Truth be told the future isn’t all that different. There’s more gene modification but nothing that freaky- smart parrots, designer kids. Virtual reality is pretty big. India is still recognizably India, Tara wonders if she should gene-modify her dark skin. She meets some creepy twins who don’t have belly-buttons and their sinister mom. She befriends the twins despite their creepiness. Meanwhile, Aditya is a gene-hacker but gets in various kinds of low-grade trouble. The dad comes back. The creepy mom wants to do in the dad, somehow, or get him involved in her bad patented-gene schemes.
None of this coheres very well. Menon can’t quite nail where to set up his looming threats for best effect, like an earnest but incompetent haunted house manager. I’d say it “keeps you guessing” except it’s hard to be bothered. It also seems to be setting up for a sequel, but it’s been eleven years so who knows if it’s coming? And he doesn’t even tell you what the beast with nine billion feet is. I give it an extra half star because of my inability to judge YA but I’m pretty sure this isn’t a great example of that, either. **’
James S.A. Corey, “Abaddon’s Gate” (2013) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Book Three of the Expanse! It’s getting downright… expansive! That rascally protomolecule has set up a portal of sorts at the edge of the solar system. What’s on the other side of the portal? Is it a sort of… star… gate?
Forgive my levity! This is a pretty good scifi novel. It doesn’t try anything crazy or innovative but that’s basically fine- it delivers the good. The workaday, no-lightspeed-travel spacefaring world the Coreys (its two guys, it’s a trade name) set up threatens to become a little less workaday as a result of the doings of the protomolecule. The protomolecule started out as an alien weapon, first zombifying people, then becoming a weird space-station sized intelligence, then becoming a star gate. All the space navies of the system — Earth’s, Mars’s, the rag-tag Asteroid Belt — are there to try to figure out what it’s deal could be.
Of course, perspective-dullard Jim Holden and his crew get sent out to do a thing out there. It turns out it’s all part of some setup a new perspective character has to ruin his reputation and do him in! She has money, a willingness to murder many people, and special combat glands. But the universe — and the protomolecule — have plans of their own. Holden’s ship gets sucked into the gate, and a bunch of navy ships, including one with the perspective-villainess, follow.
“Time moves at a different speed in the nether zone,” as Jez put it on “Peep Show.” The gate turns out to be a kind of cosmic foyer. If you know how, you can use it to get to other solar systems. But you can’t fly too fast! There’s a sort of monitor-station in the middle that can alter the laws of physics. One rule is if you go too fast it stops you, hard. After trying to clear his name from the perspective-villainess’s frame up, some space marines shoot a grenade at Holden on the monitor station, so the monitor decides to slow down the speed limit even further, severely donking up all the ships and killing many.
No one knows what to do! Except the perspective characters and their friends, when put in combination. These include Holden, the woman trying to destroy Holden, a Methodist preacher-lady, and the security head on the biggest ship, an Asteroid Belt rebel ship they stole from some Mormon settlers. They’ve all got their own problems. Holden is always getting visited by the ghost of Miller, a grizzled cop protagonist from the first book whom the protomolecule uses as a messenger (Miller wasn’t that compelling the first time around, but whatever). Clarissa, Holden’s nemesis, has to try to kill Holden and then (spoiler alert) makes good. Ana, the preacher, and Bull, the security guy, deal with the grisliest beast of all- internal spaceship politics. Holden receives information from the interstellar civilization that made the gates and the monitor that if the humans keep fucking up, the solar system is toast. But of course, humans being human :world-weary, writerly sigh: they keep fucking up, and the protagonists need to stop them.
There’s a fair amount of cool stuff here. I like internecine struggle in space, the madness of type-A motherfuckers in tin boxes in a vacuum going nuts at each other over their desperate plans. The villains are ok, though I kind of spoiled it for myself by learning that the big villain was played on the tv show by David Strathairn, who’s great, but it’s definitely typecasting. The fucking-with-physics is cool, though goes against the “this is HARD scifi, no magic here!” thing the series’s boosters promulgate. The battles get a bit confused, trying to keep track of who’s where on this huge ship. The Coreys, like their maitre George R.R. Martin, are at their worst when they try to make points about humanity, but they don’t intrude too badly here. We’ll see how it goes with the next one, when humanity starts star-gating around. ****’
Pekka Hämäläinen, “Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power” (2019) (narrated by Joe Barrett) – Trends in the historiography of Native Americans go around and around, like any history, but a little more fraught considering just how much of the modern world has been built on indigenous peoples’ death and dispossession. The first histories, or anyway the first produced by the American historical profession, depicted the Native Americans as savages who needed to be cleared away for the good of civilization (Theodore Roosevelt contributed to this historiography). Some of these writings allowed that there was tragedy and atrocity involved. But it took a later era to write histories that brought those elements to the fore, coinciding both with the coming of social history, “from below” stuff, and the rise of militant indigenous movements in the sixties and after.
Now the thing is to “give indigenous people back their agency,” though the fact that the leader in this historiography is a white dude from Finland does make it a bit funny, like, “thanks, product of Nordic social democracy, for our agency back!” I’m sure Pekka Hämäläinen is sensitive about this dynamic, he seems a smart and sensible guy. He wrote “The Comanche Empire” a few years back, and now casts his gaze north across the American plains to the domain of the Lakota Sioux. I’m still not sure why he chose the Lakota, specifically — he gets across the idea they were the dominant strain of the alliance that made up the Sioux over the Dakota (even if the latter get the states named after them), and also that Sioux was originally a slur — but either way, he makes an argument about them similar to that he made for the Comanche. The Lakota were not savages but they were also no mere victims. They adapted and remade the world around them. They were ambitious, flexible, human. Hämäläinen claimed that the Comanche played empires off each other, and he claims the Lakota did the same, and more- they offered a competitive version of American empire.
In general, this makes for an improvement on the previous historiography, at least from the cheap seats in which I reside. And it also basically allows good old-fashioned political history — leaders, empires, wars — in through the back door, as it were. Of course, Hämäläinen includes social and ecological context, which is key in thinking about Lakota politics and the politics of the West in general, but he reads the Lakota long counts — illustrated buffalo hides that tell much of the people’s history — like so many war department memoranda.
One niggle- in making the Lakota “human,” what do we mean by “human?” The cultural historians would make great hay of this question, but Hämäläinen throws up the emergency flare of “adaptability” and really, that’s good enough for our purposes. We tend to think of Native Americans as always doing, always having done, whatever it is white people encountered them doing. Even cursory thought shows this couldn’t be true, for anyone and certainly not for the Lakota- horses, the iconic Lakota animal companion, didn’t come to America until the arrival of Europeans (there were some ancient horses but they died off thousands of years before). But the Lakota didn’t take to the horse initially, either. The historical record, and Hämäläinen, first find them in the forests around the Great Lakes, hunting, gathering, and trading. They played the game of trade and war with the French, the Dutch, the British, the Iroquois, and numerous other Native players. They did ok, but ran into trouble and started moving west towards the plains in the mid-eighteenth century.
By and by, the Lakota adopted a lifestyle built around horses and chasing the buffalo herds. Mobile, unified, and capable of both great ruthlessness and clever diplomacy, they created what Hämäläinen claims can only be called an empire. They gathered tribute from other tribes, especially those along the river, who could grow carbohydrate-rich plants that the nomadic lifestyle otherwise lacked. They monopolized control of lucrative trades in furs and buffalo hides, and used these commodities to secure guns, which in turn cemented their military capabilities. Becoming a masterful nomadic military/political machine in a matter of a few generations is, to me, considerably more impressive than some gauzy “we’ve always done this” mythology.
It’s also worth noting the numbers involved. The Lakota didn’t really do censuses, but it seems unlikely they ever numbered above the mid-six figures. Only a minority of those would be fighting-age men. Even at the best of times, the Lakota were afflicted by plagues, internecine fighting, alcohol dependency, the harshness of nomadic life. But not only could they form an empire that subjugated other indigenous people, but one that could, for at least a few years, check the power of the United States, a nation of tens of millions. The Lakota ran the northern plains until the 1870s. They had to adapt to the presence of the Americans, but the Americans weren’t in charge. The Lakota seldom had numerical advantage against the Americans, even tactically (Little Big Horn being a notable exception). What they had was superb tactical and strategic sense paired with unrivaled mobility, leadership structures that valued talent over politics, a solid appreciation for firepower and surprise, and incredible — but sane, calculating — courage. There’s a reason American troops still call uncontrolled areas of countries they occupy “Indian country.” Racism, yes, but also terror- these are still the things insurgents bring to bear to bring down more heavily-equipped enemies.
Of course, it didn’t last. Who knows what a world would look like where it did, or could. Eventually, the Americans decided they wanted the Dakotas and the sacred Black Hills, with their gold. Custer, despite being a self-promoting egomaniac, became a martyr to Americans who went out to avenge him with massacre after massacre. This also entailed ecological warfare, like Phil Sheridan’s orders to destroy the buffalo herds that the Lakota lived off of (it’s hard to admire a lot of Union Civil War heroes — Sheridan, Sherman, Lincoln, Grant comes off a little better but not much — when you read them against their record in terms of indigenous people). Courage and strategy can only do so much in the face of demographics and geography. Once there was enough money in their land — and the Dakotas were a classic boom, a huge rush for gold and land, very soon after which the area became pretty much as depressed and thinly populated as it is today — that was all she wrote.
After the generals and troops came the missionaries and the teachers, unapologetically, gleefully, trying to destroy Lakota culture. They didn’t; as Hämäläinen reminds us in the conclusion, the Lakota are adapters, and have continued to adapt into the present. I know many who’d argue we need that adaptivity, and assorted other “indigenous values,” to survive climate change. There’s probably a lot of truth to that, along with some questionable historical assumptions about indigenous homogeneity. Hämäläinen does a lot of commendable work to undo our assumptions about indigenous communities being homogenous, or homogeneity’s ahistorical partner, timeless.
He doesn’t quite go all the way, though. For example- the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota. I’m completely fine with the Americans returning it to them. But then… the Lakota took it from the Cheyenne! Not that long ago, as far as these things go (Hämäläinen is pretty good about how Lakota spirituality adapted along with the rest of their lives to changing circumstances). I’m sure the Cheyenne and Lakota could come to a deal without our involvement, and I’m sure pretty much anyone would be better stewards of the lands than white Americans at this point, but the point is, if the indigenous are historical actors, it doesn’t make sense to say “they’re historical, up and until we decide to make them ahistorical again.” Among other things, a more consistent, rigorous historicizing attitude could have done more to illuminate the internal economy of the Lakota, the emerging class structure involving captives and the roles of women that the American offensives of the late nineteenth century interrupted. Or, indeed, have used cultural history resources to interrogate how the Lakota themselves understood what they were doing as they adapted. As it stands, it risks falling into a third stereotype, along with “the savage” and “the victim:” the rational actor of economics. In any event, historiographically, Hämäläinen prefers the more political/ecological approach, and I’m sure we’ll see more like this in the near future. It’s pretty good, but could use to be more complete. ****’
Victor Serge, “The Case of Comrade Tulayev” (1949) (translated from the French by Willard Trask) – Is Victor Serge the great Trotskyite writer? He certainly is pretty great, I guess I’m just curious if there’s some other big time Trotskyite novelist I’m not thinking of? Either way, Serge lived an adventurous life — raised by anti-Czarist Russian emigres in Belgium, bummed around the anarchist scene as a youth, went to Russia to help with the Revolution, fell in with Trotsky, prison, exile, narrowly avoided being killed by both Stalin and Hitler’s people — and began writing novels towards the end of it, after the Stalinist communist presses blackballed him from publishing essays. He never went right, never turned his coat, so novels became what he could get out. It sucked for him but it turned out to be pretty good for literature.
“The Case of Comrade Tulayev” finds the titular comrade, a big man in the Soviet government, shot dead on the streets of Moscow one snowy evening. We know who did it from the beginning- a rando with a gun and fleeting inspiration. But how random can it be in the midst of Stalin’s great terror? The machinery of repression goes into motion and numerous people are sucked in. The first half or so or the book introduces characters that get brought in as suspicious. Most of them were already marked, one way or another. There’s Erchov, the head of the secret service, marked for his failure to protect Tulayev and because secret service chiefs, coordinators of so much terror, only have so much shelf life. Rublev the historian is a leftover old Bolshevik, yet to be cleaned up by Stalin’s jealousies and ripe for cutting down. Makeyev, a regional governor, got too big for his britches and his wife, enraged by his infidelities, turned him in. Kondratiev returned from overseeing the Stalinist repression of rival left forces on the Republican side of the Spanish civil war only to find himself suspect.
Their various fates have little to do with their personalities or qualities, and of course nothing to do with innocence or guilt. There’s some reasonably interesting twists and turns as you try to figure out what will happen with this one or that one. The investigators are not notably competent at their jobs, even the job of backbiting and fucking people over, so things don’t go well for them, either. The person of Stalin, referred to as “the Chief,” occasionally intervenes, to condemn or save as was his wont. A kind of demoniac perversity seems to rule the day in what’s supposed to be a realm of human reason. A character tries to speak up in such a way that Stalin will kill him, and it backfires; a veteran apparatchik is done in by the momentary idealism of a family member. We see Tulayev’s killer in the end- he escapes consequences, but is stuck with the system. He moves and starts over again every few years, and it seems to work ok for him- wonder how viable that was in the Soviet system in real life?
You see this elsewhere in Serge’s take on the Soviet Union, this perversity- the stores full of fake goods, the peasants moved to incredible deeds by falsehoods or failing to do what they need to faced with facts, the whole self-aware machinery of lying, obedience, and repression. Many of the characters had been involved with the initial Bolshevik revolution, which also threw at them massive difficulties and betrayals, but none of them seem to regret it (as Serge didn’t, in life). The perversity of the revolutionary life — the sheer dogged stubbornness of the world’s flaws and failures, dotted with just enough sublime success to bait the trap, to keep you going — shaded into the perversity of the counterrevolution of Stalinism. I think that, more than any mystical tendency for revolutionists to turn against each other, makes up the continuum between revolutions and their failure: it’s fucking hard to change things, to keep at it year after year and failure after failure. Serge, I think, understood that, and not for nothing is he the great — Trotskyite — novelist, in that he kept going and never stopped trying to improve (and never stopped criticizing). That critical eye can make for good writing, sometimes. ****’
Ernst Jünger, “The Worker” (1932) (translated from the German by Bogdan Costea and Laurence Hemming) – I used to think I was clever, telling leftists how much they had to learn from reactionary sources. I don’t think I was wrong, really, but there’s definitely diminishing returns. I guess I just like sampling many kinds of ideas and writing and wanted a rationale to get friends on board. Maybe a better rationale is that if you expand your knowledge-base you get a broader and more flexible idea of how thought works. You see patterns you might otherwise miss. Dump a bunch of shit into the hopper and see what materializes.
Ernst Jünger typically yields fewer excuses for reading than other right-wing figures, because he’s been assimilated as a “literary” figure, largely on the strength of his First World War memoir/novel “Storm of Steel” and because his politics were pretty heterodox. But he was definitely “in the mix” of fractious ideological politics in the interwar period, hovering around the Conservative Revolutionary faction- antidemocratic German nationalists who were a bit too aristocratic and intellectual for the Nazis (who wound up stealing most of their thunder). Jünger wasn’t much of a joiner, it seems, though good biographical material on him isn’t easy to find in English. Not being a joiner is one of those things that might make it hard to get into print, but sometimes adds staying power to the works that do make it- and avoiding joining the Nazis, as Jünger did, was a pretty good move. They liked him (mostly), he didn’t like them, though was perfectly willing to cooperate with them when they were in power.
On the eve of the Nazi takeover, Jünger published an ideological/philosophical polemic, “The Worker.” Jünger studied entomology and practiced photography at high levels, along with writing and war. His eye attuned to arresting images and subtle categorization schemes combines with his immersion in German philosophy to produce a strange, unsettling, fascinating work.
The basic thrust of “The Worker” appears to be this: far from workers being defined by their relationship to the means of production, what makes a worker is a sort of existential status, conferred not by power-relations but by what could be called task-relations. Roughly, if your life is organized around tasks, you are a worker, in Jünger’s conception. The worker stands in contrast to the bourgeoisie, whose life is organized around self-image, more or less, and security. The bourgeoisie is individualist and thinks in terms of his rights and obligations, even when trying to organize collectively- this is how Jünger dismisses Marxism. The worker thinks collectively even when expressing himself, always thinking in terms of getting the job done.
Technology and politics make the eclipse of the bourgeoisie by the worker inevitable, Jünger argues, and cites rapid industrialization and the First World War as proof. As technology and social organization grows in complexity, the politics that governed past orders become obsolete, and so too do the people that populated them. There’s a lot of philosophical back-and-forth here about forms, types, and dominion, in the way that continental philosophy has with its terminologies. The situation is too dynamic to be specific — Jünger is often maddeningly unspecific and probably often elliptically refers to figures in German life at the time that I don’t know about — but he confidently proclaims that the dominion of the worker — meaning the imposition of the form of the worker, a social order defined around him — is at hand. Moreover, this is tied in (again, largely elliptically) with Germany’s rising from the ashes of its defeat in the war and ending the Weimar/Versailles order.
There’s a lot more to it than that, and there are interesting nuggets and graceful turns of phrase all over this dense book, but that’s the basic gist. He applies his ideas to art and to politics towards the end, all the time coming to the conclusion that man, as conceived of by the bourgeoisie nineteenth century, is all over, that something determined by “the work character” will replace him. Well… is he wrong? I do sometimes make a game of thinking about how I would interact with people from the past. The more I learn, the harder it seems like it would be to communicate with people from even relatively recent history. People, especially bourgeois, educated people, were supposed to have so many accoutrements to their personhood that contemporary people (even people with similar class backgrounds) lack…
But in other respects, of course, Jünger really whiffed the predictive aspect (though he was sufficiently vague that he could’ve raised an eyebrow and say- “did I??” On top of everything else, he lived to be 102!). You can argue that American power (and a lot of Soviet power too) devoted itself in the post-WWII period to suppressing the unholy “dominion” of obsessive, death-and-discomfort-disregarding task-completion-ends-before-means ubermenschen Jünger foresaw. The consumer, not the worker, became the central figure in America’s world-building project, and the Soviet Union, dedicated (in Jünger’s telling) to a fake socially-conscious Marxist idea of work, tagged along. To the extent anyone today on the right reads Jünger and gets past “Storm of Steel” to this work, they mostly see “The Worker” as something (something nicely, technically non-Nazi) to which to aspire, something that has yet to happen.
Jünger lived the life of the scary early twentieth century cultured, amoral ubermensch, from war hero to literary star to guy who scared the Nazis while not deviating from his own eccentric but right-wing politics to extraordinarily long-lived and productive literary institution. Arguably, he lived it longer and more categorically than anybody. I don’t generally think people in the past were better or smarter than people in the present (or vice versa), but I do think that shifts in context change what people look and act like. They really don’t make people simultaneously that educated and, for lack of a better word, crazy anymore. Our contemporary meritocratic bourgeoisie likes to pay itself in the back for its SAT scores but they couldn’t touch Jünger or millions of others like him across the global bourgeoisie in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike a lot of the crazy, absurdly well-educated people who made life so interesting, Jünger was also actually smart- perceptive, adaptable. That didn’t mean he was right about things, but he was smart.
So I’m not trying to dunk on the guy, or any rate bag on his brains, when I say that in a lot of parts of “The Worker” I found myself thinking about two contemporary figures: Elon Musk and Mike Rowe. In terms of intelligence, sensitivity, culture, capacity for expression, there is no meaningful comparison between those two utter dullards and Jünger. But Jünger himself makes clear that the task is what matters, and capitalism harnessed task-centric thinking to its own machine for producing legitimacy. Given his denunciation of the fineness of bourgeois distinctions and the “museal” quality of culture the dying bourgeoisie produced, how could Jünger complain if something rather a lot like his “total work character” or “typus of the worker” gets dumbed down (that is, rendered into an effective tool for a task) into the sentimental, emotive American idiom and sold to schmucks by the bourgeoisie to get them to work harder, disregard safety regulations, absolutely refuse to unionize? Jünger rather pointedly ignores America in “The Worker.” But the idea that the “real” class distinction is between those who do the work and those who don’t, and that management and labor are on the same side against whoever… well, Jünger would no doubt quibble, or else fuck off on a hike to take acid (he was friends with Albert Hoffman!) and collect bug samples. Being a continental ubermensch of Jünger’s vintage means never having to say you’re sorry.
Like I said, none of this is to draw a straight line between “The Worker” and Musk’s bro-Pinochetery or Rowe’s abject “dirty job” cosplaying. It’s highly unlikely either have read Jünger or would understand this book meaningfully. Rather, and here we get back to the beginning of this review, I think it’s useful, or anyway poignant and interesting, to look at how ideas and tropes migrate, appear and reappear, in varying contexts according to disparate but often related logics. Broadly speaking, Jünger and Musk face some of the same problems — legitimizing hierarchy — in radically different but genetically/temporally related contexts. The differences in context are many and don’t need explication beyond pointing to the vast decline in literary standards between the thirties and now. The similarities include a widespread disbelief in established authorities on the part of classes that are supposed to support them and a prevailing sense of emergency. What do you need in an emergency? Jünger makes nods to Carl Schmitt’s “state of exception” towards the end of “The Worker,” Musk just tweets about coups. Tragedy, farce, etc.
I suppose, to subcategorize like “The Worker” with Jünger would a bug, we could say that both Jünger and Musk attempt to make effort — putting in the hours, as CEOs are indeed wont to do, sometimes — the marker of a worker’s legitimacy whilst avoiding much of, if not all, of the sentimental baggage previous iterations of the same concept carried. Neither Musk nor Jünger are/were your father’s management hack. No gold watch at retirement, no cuckoo clock, no country songs. What you get are appeals to youth, force, power, the future (which in turn validate the “cooler” aspects of the past). Of course, with Musk, things are just stripped down to their lowest common denominator appeal, whereas in “The Worker” you have a product of high-end (if occasionally fatuously) European thought… I know which I prefer, but I also know what does “the work” it was intended to do at this moment in time. Ah, well. *****
Taylor Branch, “Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-1965” (1998) – This is the second in a big bow-wow flagship popular-history trilogy about the civil rights movement, written by journalist Taylor Branch and published between 1988 and 2006. When I say something is “bow-wow flagship popular-history” I mean big, long, meaty, usually political histories and biographies, the kind that really sailed into market in the period Branch was writing. Stuff you get for your uncle who’s into history, in a more serious vein than the History Channel but not a PhD.
I’m an uncle (and pleased as punch to be one) who is into history, but also a PhD- split the difference! Sometimes historians make impassioned cries for more narrative in works of history. Cultural and social history, focused as they are on trends and groups more than individuals, neglect narrative flow, they say. Well, split the difference there, too, I guess- I do think that historians, especially cultural, social, and intellectual historians, could use to be better writers and pay more attention to craft. That’s not the same as saying they should follow novelistic narrative conventions which wouldn’t suit their historiographical projects. Also, there’s narrative literature other than the Victorian triple-decker and realist novels historians seem to have in mind when they talk about narrative…
Anyway! I thought this was pretty good. Being who I am, I inevitably compare the middle of any trilogy to “The Empire Strikes Back.” This is kind of the opposite, as “Pillar of Fire” depicts what is arguably the high water mark of the civil rights movement in the US. The nonviolent movement wins over segregation in Birmingham, despite losing four children to a bomb in a church basement. Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act. He’s challenged for the presidency by Barry Goldwater, who opens an aperture — opposed to civil rights, but on notionally color-blind grounds — that the liberal establishment can convince itself shuts for good after Johnson annihilates Goldwater in the election. King wins the Nobel Peace Prize, a massive recognition of his international legitimacy, even as he’s despised by millions at home.
But all is not well. Branch has a lot of balls in the air, and most of them spell trouble. He does not begin the book with King, but with followers of the Nation of Islam, black people who oppose much of what King stands for. We read a lot about King’s supposed opposite number, Malcolm X, and his struggles within and eventually against the Nation after he gets expelled for outing Elijah Muhammad’s infidelities and perversions of Islam. The line that “whites would talk to Martin because they didn’t want to talk to Malcolm” is way too simple to take very seriously, but they did exist in a complicated dialectic, one cut off by Malcolm’s murder towards the end of the time covered by this book.
Other balls Branch keeps in the air include the alphabet soup of civil rights group — SCLC, NAACP, SNCC, CORE — and their wrangling over their respective visions. All of them respect King, none of them agree with him entirely, and between the perils of the movement and the liabilities of success, cracks are starting to show. We see a lot from the perspective of the Johnson White House. After the previous volume covered the Kennedy administration extensively, you get an interesting tonal shift. There’s a lot less of the Kennedy-style image-management. Say what you want against Johnson — and there’s plenty to say — but he was a lot more sincere, both about helping people and just in general — than JFK or most people in JFK’s circle. Sadly, that included his commitment to the “Cold War” part of “Cold War liberalism,” and we follow the war in Vietnam as it escalates.
All of these things come together to help doom King’s project, which is presumably what the last part of the book is about. Even his signal successes — the end of formal segregation — turn against his larger project, as they allow cynical whites to claim that racism is over, the project is done. King and the rest of the people who made up the civil rights movement certainly didn’t think that (pace certain cynical leftists, black and white, who paint integration as the goal of sickly lovers of whiteness). Branch isn’t shy about King’s failings, and discusses his serial on-the-road infidelities, though mostly as they affect the movement. Revelations about these activities formed the core of the package the FBI sent to King in an effort to get King to kill himself. If there’s one guy you could remove from American history, there’s a strong argument to be made for J. Edgar Hoover… arguably, Branch puts too many chips on King. He doesn’t do so in narrative terms, but whether or not people — Malcolm, Stokely Carmichael, NAACP, whoever — grasp (read: agree with) King’s nonviolent vision becomes a measure of their seriousness about black freedom, and that doesn’t scan.
But above all, this is a movement history, and a well done one. I knew about the Vietnam stuff and a certain amount of the difficulties in SNCC from prior reading, but what will stick with me is the roll call of honor, battles won and lost by the movement: Birmingham, Alabama; Albany, Georgia; St. Augustine, Florida; Neshoba County, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama, on and on, while everyone from Malcolm and King on down knew that worse tests would come when they would have to take their fight north, to the de jure racism that governed the lives of the children of the great migration. Branch conveys the wild hope and the sheer terror of defying generations of racist power. I was struck by the demonic adaptability of the southern power structure, marshaling everything from Klan murderers to sophisticated PR-management to get their way. I was also struck by the sheer humanity of the civil rights organizers, their internal stresses, burnout, the looming issue of racial inequities within the movement as white students streamed south to help… I can’t claim to have seen stories as epic as theirs, but I’ve seen many of the same dynamics. It’s terrifying to think we need to rely on the weak instruments of human will and blood against entrenched power machines, but it’s what we’ve got. ****’
M.A.R. Barker, “The Man of Gold” (1984) – A small but persistent minority of Citizens wanted me to read this book, so read it I have! It took a while. I usually read a chapter before going to bed. The chapters are short but dense.
His fans call M.A.R. Barker “the American Tolkien” because like the grand old man of high fantasy, Barker was a linguist, working in both Native American and South Asian languages. And it shows! Those short chapters weren’t dense with ideas or involved prose- they were packed with references. Nothing on the planet of Tekumel is just an animal or plant- it’s a “dri-ant” or a “whatever-fruit.” Every page is packed with proper nouns and not just that of characters- gods and clans and cities and empires. Seemingly every word in all of the several Tekumel languages has an accent mark in it (I haven’t reproduced that here because they’re redundant and annoying). The picture I’m going to use to accompany this review on my blog (and maybe I’ll include it on fb and the newsletter?) is a picture of a random page in the book. Truly random- I entered “356” for the number of pages into random.org and produced a page number. Page 307 is the end of an action scene, not exposition-heavy as far as the book goes, and get a load of all the names and proper nouns and accent marks! It reminds of late-era Magic card expansions- they can’t get away with calling something “warrior” anymore, so it has to be “X-civilization’s warrior,” etc.
Look, I like world-building. I like Tolkien, I like multi-layered worlds with lots of history, especially if someone tries to rigorously construct them according to some kind of logic. I wrote a novel and there is too much world-building in it so I have more or less given up on it. But there’s such a thing as too much, too quickly, and too poorly-distinguished. That’s a place where Tolkien’s oft-lamented slowness as a writer comes into its own. He introduces you to the many-fold nooks and crannies of Middle Earth slowly, “organically” even. Not so in “The Man of Gold” – Barker just throws words and concepts at you in an exhausting fusillade.
It’s not an altogether bad world, Tekumel. It’s pleasingly asymmetrical and complex. It seems like it was a colony planet of Earth, thousands of years ago, and degenerated from several eras of high-tech into a kind of medieval situation, except they can’t even figure out iron, just bronze and copper like jerks. Humans live in byzantinely complex hierarchical societies. People belong to temples of one of twenty-odd gods (who might have once been powerful technologists? Or aliens? Or something?), most of whom seem to have multiple mythic aspects as well as their main names. People also belong to clans (which don’t have Tekumel-language names, but names in English, which is both confusing and a relief) and the clans have some relationship to the temples? Then there’s kingdoms and empires, and various non-human races, lizardfolk and mantis-folk, etc. Magic exists, mostly access to ill-understood ancient technology. A lot of it has a Central Asian/Indian imperial vibe, as understood by a midcentury white scholar, to me- layers of history, people bound by multiple codes meant to respond to transhistorical imperatives, ornate flowery language to go with ornate social arrangements, etc. “Orientalist,” probably, but that’s fantasy fiction for you.
The story is pretty basic fantasy boilerplate. A young scholar, Harsan, in the temple of the scholar-god discovers an ancient secret during his linguistic research (like the author, he’s a linguist). He’s sent off on a quest to explain this secret to his superiors. He gets whisked off on various adventures as different factions try to use his knowledge. He has the key to some kind of ancient weapon (the titular Man of Gold) that can defeat another ancient weapon, but can’t consciously access it. All the different factions, most of them vying for the imperial throne, want it. He gets seduced by a lady from the sex-goddess temple. Death-god cultists mess with them. They get shanghaied by slavers. He meets another lady and escapes into ancient labyrinths of ruins to find the titular McGuffin, all while being pursued by various groups. With pluck and fortitude, Harsan survives, averts disaster, and winds up with two wives! Score!
All this is in fairly basic high fantasy prose. That’d be fine, but if you’re going to have that many groups running around, it’d be good to be able to distinguish them more, and Barker either didn’t have the chops or the inclination to do so as much as he perhaps should have in this one. Probably his best creation in this one is the death-cult, classic lawful-evil well-mannered horror villains with all manner of gross undead critters to menace the heroes with. But they also just kind of reminded me of Jack Vance, who did worlds like these but with a much defter hand. Vance often had nigh-indistinguishable factions hating each other in stagnant worlds- but that was the point, that their hates were petty, and he did as much prose-wrangling to get that across and no further. Barker, I think, got lost in the love of Tekumel. Apparently, he was a great dungeon master on the early role-playing game scene: Dungeons and Dragons co-designer Dave Arneson apparently said Barker was his favorite DM. I could see that. But as a novel… well, I’m curious enough to maybe try out another Tekumel book. But ultimately, this was more of a slog than I was thinking it might be. ***
Karl Ove Knausgaard, “A Death in the Family” (2009) (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini) – It must be a real bonanza for small-language translators when a Karl Ove Knausgaard or a Halldor Laxness or an Ismail Kadare comes along, huh? Like all the Norwegian or Icelandic or Albanian translators coming out of the woodwork, getting their big moment…
Anyway, this is the first in a six-novel series where the author, an artsy Norwegian Gen Xer, relates his life in excruciating detail. The series gets a lot of Proust comparisons. I never got into Proust, I should probably try again. I didn’t get into Knausgaard either. I listened to it because every third audiobook I do, I try to listen to “important” “contemporary” literature. I remember when everyone was talking this guy up, and even the official dumb guy in the most prominent “dirtbag left” podcast talks about reading him, so, I figured I’d give it a try.
In the Proustian mode, Knausgaard’s autobiographical novel goes back and forth in time, following eccentric paths of association. For the most part, the first half of this book depicts Knausgaard’s childhood, roughly from age eight to age sixteen. The second half concerns what happens when his dad dies when the author is about thirty and just getting started in his literary career. The dad looms over a lot of the book- he’s a jerk, emotionally abusive, degenerates into alcoholism. But nothing can overshadow the great big I of Knausgaard himself. It’s Karl Ove, his feelings, his inner experiences, his minutely detailed recalling of his experiences: weather, clothes, the little mundane movements of people he converses with, that’s the attraction.
Ego can be a good thing for writers. Arguably, it’s a necessary thing, even for non-memoirists, the idea that your words are worth reading. But here’s the thing: Norwegians might be the most humorless people in the western world. In twenty-two hours of listening, I caught one (1) joke, and it was about Chekhov. Literature doesn’t need to be a laugh-a-minute to be legitimate. But A. Come on and B. Let’s talk tragedy. I know it has different meanings for different people. I’m somewhat old school in that I prefer the oldest meaning I know about- irresolvable conflict, brought on by what’s best in the conflicting bodies. You can argue Knausgaard’s series (called “My Struggle” because he’s a cute little prick, in spite of his perpetual long face) is about the greatest tragedy of all, in that sense, the tragedy of lived existence and its inevitable disappointments, culminating in death.
It was an interesting play, on the part of one faction of modernist writers, to roll the dice and try to sell normal life as tragic. Sometimes it pays off, artistically speaking, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s surely not what the Greeks had in mind, and another strain of modernism, following Nietzsche, went quite the other way in terms of their attitudes towards normal life, with, errr, interesting results. Of course, Knausgaard is a twenty-first century man (and a Gen Xer, if that means much in Norway), so awareness of his own consciousness, posturing and tragedy-seeking, is very much part of his deal.
What does it all add up to? One of my least favorite things in any kind of cultural production is the equation of “tragic” with “sad.” I know some people who do that and I don’t criticize them — they’re on their own journey — but I do not like it, especially from people who should know better. To be fair, Knausgaard is far too canny for that. But he basically only goes one notch above and makes an easy equation between “tragic” and “boring.” He makes pretty clear that this isn’t an abuse memoir. The point isn’t “my dad was an abusive prick and so I can’t enjoy life.” It’s just, “I can’t enjoy life, also, my dad is a prick” (I don’t think he uses the word “abusive” in relation to his father).
Basically, this is a long way around the barn of saying this book was boring. The language was nice. It probably would have bored me more in the hands of a less talented prose stylist. Not to get political, but contemporary Scandinavians are possibly the most comfortable, coddled group of people in human history. I know the Nordics are no utopia — have read enough Swedish crime novels to take that on board — and I know comfort is no guarantee of happiness, but you need to do more than Knausgaard does to make boredom interesting. It is possible. To me, this doesn’t manage it. I may look up the second book one of these days, but I’ve decided against going through the whole series sequentially in my audiobook-literature listening slot. You know, for those of you hanging on my reading selection news. **’
Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping” (1980) – This novel answers a question I didn’t know I had, lingering in my mind: “what would a serious literary novel look like if it were written by someone who could check all of these boxes at once: white, American, sincerely believing Protestant, writing after the 1960s?” I think some part of me, before looking in to Marilynne Robinson, basically assumed no one fit the bill. Serious WASP novelist, pre-sixties? Plenty. Serious contemporary PoC American Protestantism? Sure. Contemporary white American Protestants that don’t really believe it but like the community and do-gooding? Still kicking, here in Boston, original HQ of the kind of thing, especially, and probably some of them write novels. Serious contemporary American Protestants?Well, yes, though recent events call into question the sincerity of their belief versus their tribal affiliations… In any event, they don’t write “serious” novels (I’m racking my brain to think of them writing good “unserious,” i.e. genre, novels either… James Ellroy, I guess, but he’s the definition of a “special case”). They don’t do rigorous abstract thought. That’s why the right fills its jurist and serious functionary seats with Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and if the Trump movement continues, whackjobs from the Internet.
Look, I know, I get it. I shouldn’t focus on that. I should focus on the unpretentious spare beauty of the language, the meticulous but unostentatious concern for the worlds made by women, and the simple-yet-thorough humanity of the characters. Well, among other things, those attributes are probably among the reasons why I never thought to read any Marilynne Robinson before now. It’s not that I’m against them. It’s just that those things are prized by creative writing students. I have taken one writing course in my life and it was spring semester, 2005. Robinson doesn’t seem to get involved in controversies or other stuff that might grab a non-writing-student’s attention (well, she gets praised by Oprah, but that’s not a good vector for my attention either). She’s respected in such a way that she never became a punching bag, ala Jonathan Franzen or (her former student) David Foster Wallace, so I didn’t get to know about her that way. I knew her name for a while, and would see her stuff in bookstores. I knew people in writing circles who talked her up, big time. Eventually I edited a review of her latest book for San Antonio Review, and figured maybe I should have a look. Here we are.
“Housekeeping” is the story of a kid named Ruth, living some time in the mid-twentieth century in a town called Fingerbone somewhere in the mountain west. One day, her mother drops her and her older sister Lucille off at Grandma’s house and drives her car off of a cliff into the deep mountain lake nearby. Previously, this lake had claimed a whole train full of people, including grandpa, slipping off the railroad bridge into the deep. It’s a scary lake. Grandma is old, tired, strong, respectable, and befuddled by life, what with its lake-taken loved ones and sudden responsibilities for children. She dies and some eccentric great aunts take over the house. Also thrown by their new responsibilities, the great aunts fly the coop when the girls’ aunt Sylvia returns to Fingerbone to take over the titular task of keeping house with the kids. Sylvia is an eccentric who lived for years as a drifter. She does whacky stuff like eat dinner in the dark and collect random shit. Ruth is basically down but as Lucille grows older and gets into adolescence, she is not. By and by, the law takes an interest in the supposed neglect of Ruth, and Ruth and Sylvia flee into the night.
Robinson’s prose is, indeed, quite fine. I especially enjoyed a passage where Ruth talks about the sort of not-asleep not-awake state you can get into if you stare into deep dark long enough. Robinson is good with sensate stuff like that. There’s a little bit of “the ands” — unnecessary usage of the conjunction “and” in lists instead of commas to, I don’t know, give emphasis or something, you see it all the time and it bugs me — but for all I know, she invented that tic and passed it down to her workshop epigones. She makes differences in terms of house cleaning and the like between the women who make up the story stand out and not in some obvious symbolic way. As for the simple humanity bit… well, I guess that’s where we get back to how I began. Her version of humanity is hard for me to recognize. Not that that makes it wrong, or false, or that I’m going to start bitching about how I “can’t relate to the characters,” that obnoxious cliche of readers who treat literature like a consumer experience. I felt I could relate to the characters.
Where I had trouble was connecting to the philosophical stuff Robinson put in Ruth’s mouth. I’ll give just one example- she has Ruth say “[F]or need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and it’s shadow.” And a bunch more in that vein- no more feel the need for someone to touch your hair as to feel it. In what world is that the case? Whose experience is that? Is that what it’s like to be one of the serene middle aged ladies at a UU church? I’m not trying to be rude or dismissive here. That’s just utterly foreign to me- not just to me, but to more or less everything I’ve read. It’s actually kind of wild. But it also makes me arch an eyebrow. What the hell is literature for in a world where desire and satisfaction are the same? What’s the point? A bit like asking what’s the point of being good if our fates are predestined, like Robinson’s homeboy (not being flip here, she has written extensively praising) John Calvin…
How much did any of the doings in the book interest me? How much do straying bourgeois wives interest me? Not much but I enjoyed “Madame Bovary.” “Housekeeping” held some interest for me but less- Flaubert is pointed, mean, and Robinson isn’t, not here anyway. So I amused myself in two ways. First, I played “find the contemporary workshop lit tropes.” Robinson reigned over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for some time, and stuff from here crops up in “that kind” of fiction over and over again, from the NYT bestsellers list to your writer friends google docs. Siblings with a spooky bond? Check. The woods as source of meaning, Walden redux? Check. The “ands?” Check.
Second, I cooked up a scenario where Robinson is a satrap. I’ve noticed that in the publishing world, sometimes an author is basically crowned king of their community, the spokesman (gendered term used advisedly) who’s on call to represent their ethnos and advance their protégés, stymie rivals, etc. Junot Diaz was that guy for Dominican and to an extent Latino writers; Sherman Alexie played that role for Native American literature for a while. I think of these as “satraps,” the term for governors of what used to be independent kingdoms absorbed by the Persian empire. Both Diaz and Alexie ran afoul of abuse scandals clearly abetted by being treated like little dependent kings and both probably held back the literature of their respective communities (Diaz was quite spiteful towards Carmen Maria Machado, a much more talented writer). I think the white publishing industry would have loved for Ta-Nehisi Coates to be their African-American satrap, but he doesn’t seem interested and that literary space is (and always has been) too big and diverse to manage that way. I found myself thinking, what if there’s hundreds of good white Protestant writers — they’d have to be evangelicals, there’s not enough juice in “mainline” Protestantism anymore — and we just put Robinson out there as their symbolic figurehead so we don’t have to confront their energy, like how Diaz’s literary machismo was probably threatened by Machado’s perspective? Is Marilynne Robinson fake news?? Well, no, that’s silly. She’s just a decent writer I don’t relate to much. Don’t worry- I’ll give “Gilead” a try, one of these days. ***’
Seyward Darby, “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism” (2021) – A fair few new books on contemporary American fascism and antifascism lately, which I’d be interested in reading even if I weren’t working on my own book about it. Seyward Darby works as a journalist, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and got extensive access to three of the most prominent women on the contemporary American fascist right. There’s Corinna Olsen, a former leader in the National Socialist Movement, the American Nazis who go the most out of their way to imitate genuine German Nazis of the 1923-1945 era. There’s Ayla Stewart, a leading white nationalist “tradlife” influencer online (the “what is tradition” question among your “tradlife” folks is so muddied I’ve given up worrying about it). And lastly, we have Lana Lokteff, a sort of younger, more-openly-Nazi Ann Coulter figure and cohost of the Red Ice podcast. All three, by interesting coincidence, were born in that year of years, 1979.
What can these three tell us about white nationalism and women’s place in it? That seems to be Darby’s thesis question. Good student she presumably once was, she dutifully returns us to the thesis question at points in most (all? I didn’t keep track) chapters, and answers “yes, Virginia, white women were always important to white nationalism.” That was a rude way of putting it, stemming with frustration with how little I’ve read lately, even good books, surprise me, in form or content. Darby’s thesis is both true and more involved in that. The role white women have historically played in white nationalism is that of normalizing the ideology. From the antebellum South to the Klan revival in the nineteen-twenties to the online influencers of today, white nationalist women do their best to associate their hateful, deadly ideas with home, hearth, children, nurture, and (a carefully modulated, don’t want any loose women here! Except when nazi men actually do) sex appeal. More than marketing (though it’s definitely also marketing), these concerns of white nationalist womanhood tap into the deep concerns of racism more generally, the notion of a zero-sum world of racial total war where the “home front” is of paramount importance.
The three subjects illustrate these dynamics and how they work today in different ways. Olsen is somewhat the outlier (Darby refers to these women by their first names throughout- I’m weird about that and so will stick with surnames. They are not my friends). If she participated in efforts to normalize all-out Hitler-imitative Nazism, it was only in comparison to what the men were up to. She was a lost Gen Xer (as were all three women, to a certain extent) in the Pacific Northwest when she got swept up in Nazism, specifically, to the promise of Kalispell, a whites-only intentional community out in the mountains. She liked the idea of getting into a primal, folksy domesticity (I found myself thinking of “Midsommar”) with her two daughters (the dad was out of the picture). Olsen also tolerates bullshit a lot less than the other two, and quit (giving information to the FBI in the process) after Nazi men routinely sexualized her daughters. She converted to Islam not long before Darby contacted her.
Lokteff and especially Stewart are closer to the thesis. Stewart identified as a feminist whose big thing was natural birth. Soft-leftism and relatively defensible but kook-adjacent positions, along with a desire for more attention and a lack of real values, led her down the primrose path to what was then called the “altright.” She joined an extra-conservative Mormon sect, started cranking out kids, and brought her white nationalist message to the “mommy blog” space. She took to the tropes and the conventions of the space — pastel aesthetic, aspirational lifestyle-ism, nostalgia, passive-aggressive sniping at other mothers, and most of all, the shocked, shocked! aggrieved tearful defensiveness that anyone would object to her ideas — like a fish to water.
Lokteff, for her part, also started out vaguely left-of-center. Granddaughter of an emigre from the Russian Revolution (let’s pause and pour one out for nana’s stolen serfs) and also raised among a lot of vaguely spiritual nonsense, she got into white nationalism via the sort of aimless skepticism that characterizes… some people, we’ll leave it at that. She had a kid around the time Darby started interviewing her (commenters on her shows let her know how she was failing the race). She couldn’t do the domestic goddess thing Stewart does, but she could do the “I’m a woman who likes ‘traditional’ masculinity” thing. Interesting, given the way she has, in many ways, sidelined the Swedish Nazi she married and whose show she basically took over, but that’s how it goes. How must Phyllis Schlafly’s husband have felt? Fine, probably, the prick.
At this point, faithful readers must be as used to me bringing up the shortcomings of liberal analyses of fascism (and antifascism) as I am of the theses in these thesis-heavy books I read. Well… tough. The shortcomings in “Sisters in Hate” aren’t damning and the book is still well worth reading. They can be summed up as the effects of a liberal understanding of politics as having more to do with personal affect than it does. Such an outlook probably makes for better profile-writing than a more rigorous outlook might. I look at these three women and see marks. I want to know how they can affect a strategic situation and how best to neutralize them. But they are, indeed, humans (Nazis are human- just bad humans). Darby brings that out in discussing their assorted personalities: Olsen’s sharpness and oddness, Stewart’s desire to belong and capacity to swallow her own snake oil, Lokteff’s cynicism.
I’m not even saying Darby shouldn’t do that. I just think a more structural approach might have done more to link up these affects to the political situation, if we’re going to give them political weight- the affects and the effects, if you will. For example, it would have been cool to spool out more the historical context, given they were literally all born in the same year. This critique extends to the solutions- can’t have a liberal political book without some solutions! These mostly involve white women doing the work of challenging racism themselves, of helping women who seem to be falling off into white nationalism, donating to ex-Nazi recovery groups (Darby cites a mediocre one, not an actively hurtful one). These suggestions are varying degrees of helpful, but don’t really get to the root of the problem. Moreover, it cuts across the grain of her thesis. She uses the metaphors of “falling” into nazism and needing a “handhold.” Did they fall, or did they walk, intentionally, into what they did (and do)? Well, as always, probably a bit of both, and prevention is worthwhile, but it deserves more of a discussion. In any event, this is a pretty good book on an underexplored topic. It’s just the critiques are a little more interesting to write (and, I’d guess, read) than “good profiles!” ****