Here’s my latest from the Dig. It’s about P. Djèlí Clark’s new book, “Master of Djinn,” and also a little about what alternate history fiction is and why it often doesn’t satisfy as much as one would like. Previews some themes from this year’s birthday lecture, which should be up here soon. Enjoy.
David Neiwert, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us” (2020) – Dave Neiwert has a possibly unique reputation in antifascist circles- he’s a liberal, a “lib” who is skeptical of militant antifascism, but all the serious antifascists I know admit, without any grudging, that he knows his shit. He’s been following the far right for years, does good research, and doesn’t go beyond the research (for instance, into having a great many opinions about antifascism that he expounds upon, as many liberals do with less basis).
His new book is about conspiracy theories and there’s good reason why. It’s goddamned everywhere and anyone my age or older has had the creepy experience of watching conspiracy theory migrate from the drolly amusing margins of life to the center. It’s especially hard on liberals, who put so many chips on the idea that a rational, informed public can steer public life without much in the way of dangerous mucking about with power structures. The rise of Trump and QAnon is like a zombie movie turned real to them. Hell, I’ll admit, I’m not so far from liberalism — or maybe just the idea that the sort of irrationality and fanaticism you now see cropping up in the Trumpist/QAnon/antivaxx/CRT-panic formations is a “those people” thing, something for the South or abroad, not a thing that would affect New Englanders or people who remind me of New Englanders — to be unable to relate.
Among other things, Neiwert makes an interesting point- conspiracy believers have undertaken virtually every mass casualty attack in western countries for the last twenty years. Incels, “white replacement” Nazis, he doesn’t mention them but ISIS guys usually believe conspiracies, too. That’s a relevant fact, but Neiwert doesn’t push it too hard- after all, more and more people have been drawn into the world of conspiracy theory (not talking about thinking something is fishy with the Warren Report or that Epstein didn’t kill himself, but hardcore world-organizing conspiracy theory) and most of them don’t do any violence. We could also point out that when you leave the twenty-year cutoff, mass shootings seem orthogonal to conspiracy thinking- I’ve never heard that the Columbine killers or other school shooters of that era were particularly into conspiracies, for instance.
Mass shooters are the tip of the iceberg. Since conspiracy theory lurched towards the center of right-wing politics, conspiracy theory can do even greater damage when it winds up behind the wheel of policy. Immigration, climate change, the basic administration of justice and basic governing functioning… as the Republican Party enters into a dynamic where it needs to feed its conspiracy-mad base more and more red meat, who’s to say how much can get thrown into a cocked hat by conspiracy-inflected thinking?
And this is where Neiwert slips up, and where his liberalism, no impediment to seeing the problems of the right, trips him up. Advice on trying to deprogram your conspiracy-minded family and friends dominated the last part of the book. It’s fairly sensible stuff about being empathetic but firm, giving them alternative stuff to believe, dealing with underlying hurts, etc. You can see why people whose relatives have been stolen from them by Fox News and Infowars would want that advice. But it isn’t a meaningful political solution. Neiwert even grants that it’s dicey enough as an individual solution. But it seems to be what liberalism offers.
Not to be a broken record, but I’ll stake a claim: it’s about power. What will break the grip of conspiracy? Maybe stuffing every Fox News casualty’s mouth with gold could do it, reassure their anxieties, but A. certainly not for all of them and probably not for enough of them and B. The pricks they vote in won’t let us do that until we have enough power to actually overthrow them. Really, I think, especially given the linkages between conspiracism, authoritarian politics, and authoritarian cultural strains (there’s also an “authoritarian personality” supposedly, and I can believe it, but that’s not my field), there needs to be an alternative pole of power that can command allegiance, respect, or failing those, silence. It doesn’t have to be the silence of the censor: the sullen silence of knowing you’ll be laughed at for your challenge will do it, at least keep the conspiracists on the margins where they belong. And if you have that kind of power, you don’t need to worry that your whole setup can be knocked down by a senile ex-game show host and his febrile fans. That’s what we need- to the extent nice conversations with your chud relatives can help build that, good. To the extent they can’t, well, we know where to drive the old cart and plough. ****
Murray Rothbard, “Power and Market: Government and the Economy” (1970) – I remember being a baby grad student and setting out to read various important German philosophers: your Kants, your Hegels, your Nietzsches, your Heideggers. My enjoyment and comprehension values varied, but between being a historian and, I figure, being an American, I could never get fully “into” them because it just felt like people saying words out of their mouths. I’m not a scientist, I don’t demand data and scientific method from everything, but I guess I just prefer there to be some more backing to the things people say than that it sounds good. Ironically, given his reputation and some of his other statements, Nietzsche was the one who got closest to being at all empirical, with his early career in classical studies. I’ve gotten something out of all the philosophers I’ve named, especially as I got older and realized that everyone, explicit or not, has some sort of non-empirical basis on which to launch their empirical investigations. I came to think that there’s a degree to which the human capacity for thinking these things at all indicates that such things are worth thinking. Our ability to abstract and imagine the infinite points to something more than empiricism can answer for, even if I generally prefer to make my way with the solid groundings of citations and paper trails.
I thought of this while reading Murray Rothbard, and to a lesser extent other libertarian thinkers recently. Rothbard would probably hate being compared to most of these guys, especially Hegel, cast in Rothbard’s day as the arch-philosopher of the dreaded state. I tend to think Hegel et al would return the favor. To me, this is no “both sides” business. At its worst and most abstruse, the continental philosophical tradition (as opposed to contemporary continental philosophy, more of an industry than anything else) represents people bringing their best lights to difficult and essential aspects of what it is to be human. What Murray Rothbard and his cothinkera represent is a wretched provincial charade of the same thing, taking the portentous stakes, philosophical excuses to not bother with the empirical, and pretentious language of the philosophical enterprise to affirm utter crankery… though it’s somewhat of an insult to cranks, some of whom don’t wind up just saying “whatever I imagine rich people to want” over and over again as though it’s capital-T Truth.
In this book, a portion of his 1962 masterwork “Man Economy, and State,” Rothbard practices what he calls “praxeology.” Have you not heard of that? Well, that’s probably because it’s not a real thing. Austrian School economists dug it out of the corpse of classical learning, isolating a bit of Aristotle here and various others there, to create a basis for understanding the world based on “human action,” defined as purposive, goal-oriented, and if not perfectly-informed than reasonably-informed. From this axiom, you derive other axioms, and go on your merry way. “Power and Market” is axiom after axiom after (strawman) objections to axioms he likes followed up axioms disproving the objections. That’s it. He will occasionally throw in a cherry-picked empirical fact, but not often.
Rothbard is both an outlier and something of a bridge figure in the history of libertarianism (it makes sense that libertarians would have bridges to outliers of thought- if only they’d stay there). He went a lot farther than most libertarians did in terms of denying a government role in pretty much anything, including securing a sound currency or maintaining a common defense. All that can be privatized, too, Rothbard insists, making him the father of “anarchocapitalism.” Of course, we know “ancaps” these days by their tendency to join forces with outright fascists, and we know why- because ancap is feudalism with extra steps, and that’s more or less what a stable fascism would degenerate into, Himmler’s fatuous little rural volks-deutsch daydream. Did Rothbard know that? Did he care? Does it matter? To the extent I understand Rothbard’s trajectory, it was one long process of getting back at his neighborhood- he was a conservative geek, a bowtie dipshit from the beginning, which didn’t make him popular growing up in the thirties and forties in Jewish neighborhoods in New York. He had acolytes but he didn’t seem to have friends- he busted up with Ayn Rand, for instance, when neither one would bend the knee to the other. He wound up plonking himself down with neoconfederates and Holocaust deniers at the Mises Institute in Alabama and there he stayed til he popped his clogs in 1995.
For all he was a weirdo, like I say, Rothbard was also a bridge, specifically between the stormy continental pessimism of much of the original Austrian School economists like von Mises and von Hayek and what would become American libertarianism. It might be hard to remember now that it got its lunch money took by resurgent fascism, but libertarianism used to be an optimistic creed. Sooner or later — probably sooner — everyone would see that the free market was the way to go. It was implicit in everything from technology to pop culture, politics just had to catch up. As for Rothbard’s role in all this, let’s put it this way: at his gauziest and dumbest, von Hayek would never have made the sort of promises Rothbard makes for what would be possible if the government would just cease existing. “Good government” was not an oxymoron for libertarians or many other neoliberals before Rothbard. In characteristic American style, various hustlers like Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan and whoever else would use aspects of the privatization-mania Rothbard philosophized to pry apart the public sector, without giving away a scintilla of power. Ancaps could screech but they should have cheered- this is what they were for.
In the end, though, I go back to the book itself and it’s structure. What this “praxeology” business reminds me of is a more pretentious version of what you often see in vernacular philosophizing, including the thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and “sovereign citizen” types, some of whom have vaguely anarchocapitalist notions already. You start with a few things you see around you, and apply a set of mental operations to them. If you come into it with a paranoid and/or anti-authority streak, anyone pointing out that your system has some holes in it is just trying to suppress you and your ideas. The reasoning itself that Rothbard followed in his praxeology reminded me of nothing so much as the “lessons” in “Supreme Mathematics” practiced by Nation of Islam offshoot commonly called the Five Percenters. They like to improvise on various axioms and numerological concepts to come up with “science,” a sort of Kabbalah developed by black kids in the depths of the inner city, the playgrounds and the prison yards. To the best of my knowledge, though, praxeology has never inspired music as good as the Wu Tang Clan, and the Gods and Earths haven’t contributed as much as libertarians have to our current mess, nor do they screech like tea kettles about how their method is the only rational method. I know which I prefer. **
Natalie Ironside, “The Last Girl Scout” (2020) – This fucking ruled. It’s two hundred years after a mid-21st century nuclear war! Some shit is still fucked — heavily nuked areas are still radioactive and have “roamers,” zombies more or less, products of biowar weapons, roaming around — but civilization has rebuilt in some areas. One such is the Ashland Confederated Republic, a communist federation of survivors in Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts south (until you get to the “exclusion zones” around nuked-out Birmingham and Atlanta… I guess they didn’t bother with Nashville? It’s ok). Across the Ohio River they face off with the Blacklands New Republic, a white supremacist fascist state. You might wonder why survivors of an apocalypse would, a hundred years later, decide to take up early twentieth century ideologies, complete with trappings (the Ashlanders still debate about Trotsky; the fascists have Arditi and often use Italian or German phrases). Well, post-apocalyptic (or generally futuristic) atavism has been a thing in scifi forever, with monarchies, feudalism, the Wild West, and god knows what else coming back after the bombs fall- so why not ideological struggle circa 1937? I dig it!
Natalie Ironside, an IWW organizer, doesn’t mess around, and her main character, Magnolia “Mags” Blackadder, is a commissar, the supposed avatar of communist evil. But this is a state where communism works, more or less, and the commissars are there to ensure the rights of soldiers (keeping those pesky officers in line) and in general be kind of wandering Jedi of the revolution. Mags is young, her family got all fucked up in a famine, she’s a transwoman, and she lives for her work- advancing the Revolution and fighting fascists. She’s sent on an impossible mission- crack The Citadel. Deep in the “Exclusion Zone” in the Acela Corridor, the Citadel shines bright with the sort of technological salvage the communes could really use to up their automation game and advance towards utopia. It also shines with menace- few who have tried to take the Citadel have ever come back. Except for Ohio Nazis (“I fucking hate Ohio Nazis”)- they’re going to the Citadel and coming back. It’s ominous.
First, of course, Mags needs to gather a team. There’s the Prof, her old professor at the academy who knows Old American tech. There’s Connor, whose wife was horribly killed by a vampire (there’s vampires) last time out to the Citadel. There’s TJ, who they kind of pick up at an anarchist bar along the way, but they seem cool? And most importantly, there’s Jules. Jules is a renegade fascist Arditi, a transwoman and survivor of harrowing abuse at the hands of her former co-fascists. She labors under a crushing weight of trauma and guilt. She and Mags meet up and it’s love at first sight. They talk trauma and fuck all the way from the anarchist zone of the communist state (there’s some amusing insults back and forth between anarchists and communists but they work together in the crunch) in the Appalachians to the Baltimore suburbs where the Citadel waits.
There’s a few different kinds of action in the book and Ironside handles them all with aplomb. There’s a lot of fights, both “unbalanced” horror-style violence — her vampires are genuinely scary — and action-movie style fights dealing with unfriendly bandits and fascists. There’s also a lot of emotional relationship talk! Having read a lot of military science fiction due to Reasons lately, I’ve read a lot of both lately — your military scifi always has dudes thinking about love — and I think Ironside ranks with the best of them at military action and beats them all hollow on the relationship stuff. She comes out of the fanfiction scene and this is self-published, and if I’m being honest I think it could have benefited from professional editing — it gets repetitive — but not at the cost of Ironside’s style (hell, you ever listen to people talk relationships? Or politics? It’s repetitive!). It works quite well as stands.
There’s so much more, even in the first part, that I can’t give due consideration to — a friendly early 2000s hipster girl vampire (kind of a Marceline type)! Kaiserine/Nazi vampire experiments brought stateside by Operation Paperclip AND involving a gay WWI vampire romance that goes bad because one vampire becomes a Nazi and the other a Communist! A fascist prison camp/bordello for transwomen! Terrible revenge! Tac nukes! — and it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
And then there’s the second part! If I’m being honest I think this could have been a separate book. It’s rare when I want more of a novel, but I wanted more of this one. After the Ohio fascist plan revolving around the Citadel goes up in smoke, the fash say “yolo” and try to bulldog the Ohio River anyway, just as a meeting of the Soviets is happening! The Soviets are doing the math and are realizing — except for some lame Stalinoid class reductionists — that they need to take these fash sons of bitches down. They can’t coexist. They’re expanding in the west against the Indigenious portions of the Republic. Who knows when they’ll find some other superweapon? They can’t do “force against force” — there’s more people in the fertile Ohio farmland than in the rocky Appalachia soil — but they can subvert the fash from beneath (which I like because it’s the fascists’ straight up worse nightmare). But the fash strike first! Mags, Jules, a new lover of theirs, and some of the rest of the old crew are sent into enemy territory to help light up the kindling under the fash’s asses.
This is also overstuffed with cool shit — fash vampire long-range raids to take out artillery! Guerrilla action! Inter-fash political bullshit! Commie spies using their control over the illicit cigarette and coffee trade to smuggle arms to the gay underground in fash cities! Forgiveness and revenge! More emotions talk! — to the point where, like I said, I would’ve liked to see it as its own big book. But it’s cool as is.
If I hazard a criticism beyond the editing/structure, I’d say that in the action, she could use to vary up the patterns of setback and victory a little. Ironside has made clear that she is not telling stories of dystopia, even with all the terrible shit that happens in the book and it’s background, she is telling stories of hope. We can build back better, together- we can be who we are and find love and peace. That’s cool! I would say it creates a pattern wherein we are frontloaded with tragedy — setbacks in the action and revelations of terrible trauma for the characters — and backloaded with victories. That’s fine as a first-level pattern. The victories feel earned. But I think she could heighten the tension and drama by having more setbacks and more contradictions — in the process of achieving victory —. She’s got the characters with depth for it, and the knowledge; clearly, she knows her stuff about politics, war (something tells me she’s followed the news out of Syria), ecology, etc. But, hell, when she wrote a book this fun, she can do her own thing. It’s been a long time since I “geeked out” over fiction, but here I am. *****
James S.A. Corey, “Babylon’s Ashes” (2016) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Well, the two Coreys (“James S.A. Corey” is a house name for two dudes) decided they’d do space Tolstoy. They even make it explicit in the last chapter, with one of their characters reading and expounding on the old Russky wife-hating sage. Indeed, they bring back pretty much every viewpoint character from the previous four books who aren’t dead, and a few more besides, to give their take on the goings-on.
And what ARE the goings-on? The Solar System is fucked after the last book, when a coalition of Asteroid Belt extremists and shady Martian-colonist naval officers blast the fuck out of Earth with asteroids. Without Earth, ecological collapse threatens the system. There’s an alien gateway that can get people to other solar systems out by Neptune, but the extremists control it. Like I said, it seems the Coreys got sick of the “Alien”-esque workaday space world last book and decided to apocalypse it. That wasn’t a great move, but was somewhat interesting. Now they need to clean up their toys and get them somewhere else. They spend hundreds of pages doing it! And it’s not that good, or that interesting.
The many viewpoint characters give you a bunch of looks at the world of the Expanse, but that world isn’t interesting enough to sustain the weight. It’s not bad, and it can definitely sustain good action, like in the first three books. But when interest has to come from the details of the world, it’s not enough. The Coreys don’t make anything that original or interesting. The closest is the Belters, which is good as they’re the pivot of the whole thing. A space-bound culture raised on stations, ships, and asteroid, they have kind of a proletarian thing (exploited by Inner Planets) and kind of a nationalist thing and kind of vision of everyone being space-based? It’s fine that the movement is confused. Movements are often confused. But the Belt, it’s people, and it’s politics don’t feel real enough to sustain the action or my interest that much, especially as a movement willing to get behind a genocidaire who also destroyed their lifeline, ie the Earth (the rest of the system has not been meaningfully terraformed). This is because Belter politics are a grab-bag of features of demotic politics and nothing coherent. It doesn’t scan. Martian and Earth politics and society are even less fleshed out.
All of this would be forgivable if the action delivered, but it doesn’t. It’s scattered and confused, and the Coreys take time out to deliver little homilies on “human nature,” how we’re “tribal” — lot to be said about the resurgence of that adjective in recent decades — and greedy but things are still worth it and anyone who tries to radically change things is bad, blah blah the usual. I don’t like normal Tolstoy that much. American pop scifi Tolstoy is hard to take. Eventually they go out to the alien gate and there’s a fight in the gate and it’s fine, people are gonna expand into the galaxy but the Belters will get some stuff etc. I’ve been told the one that comes after this is better, and the blurb I read shows some promising surprises, so we’ll see. **’
Katrina Forrester, “In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy” (2019) – Liberalism! The great empty hole in a lot of radicals’ understanding of the political spectrum. In many respects, we treat it like a fact of life, like the weather, but also as something ephemeral, something that will just go away as soon as the real shit, the facts, the structural realities, assert themselves and force everyone to choose their path- right or left, reaction or revolution, fascist or socialist. I’m often enough guilty of it myself. And so we’re left with radicals handwaving liberalism away as a half-measure, reactionaries basically chalking it up to “cultural Marxism” or something, and of course, liberals’ own accounting for themselves.
But there’s more to it than that, obviously, and I think it benefits radicals to develop more nuanced (not necessarily positive!) understandings of liberalism and its history. It seems that mire critical leftists have been answering the call of late, and one such is Katrina Forrester, who wrote this top notch history of John Rawls’s epochal “A Theory of Justice” and its reception since its publication in 1971. It’s just the sort of toothsome intellectual history I love to make a real meal out of- the sort of thing that brings out the gourmand in me.
I read “A Theory of Justice” long ago and I’ll be damned if I remember much of it beyond the “original position”- that in a situation where no one knows what life circumstances they’re going to encounter, people would build a society that prioritized insulation from circumstance- bad luck, mistakes, etc. To this end, everyone should get the same rights, and any inequalities should be arranged to favor the least advantaged. This, I guess, was Rawls’s idea of justice. It’s precisely that sort of unmoored thought experiment that makes me recoil from most analytical philosophy (their attempts to be math don’t help) even when I don’t disagree, even when I can grant such experiments help some people. Like chess, algebra, and many forms of jazz, it’s a level of abstraction that I have difficulty hanging with and feel antagonistic towards in ways I can’t quite help.
Maybe one of the reasons I like this book so much is that it takes us into the worlds of analytical philosophy in the last half of the twentieth century, but at a level of abstraction — that of critical history — that I understand, my happy place. Rawls, Forrester informs us, worked on “A Theory of Justice” for a solid decade. He was an indefatigable student, engaging with pretty much every form of analytical philosophy and liberal political thought then available, trying things out for the big unifying theory he had in mind, taking bits from here and there- game theorists, utilitarians, moral philosophy, social democracy, antitotalitarianism, etc. Forrester takes us through these worlds and the priorities Rawls inherited from them, and the priorities his readers would soon apply to “A Theory of Justice” once it came out, lead among them the quandaries of the Vietnam War (doesn’t seem like that much of a quandary from a socialist anti-imperialist position, but liberals).
Among other key bits of context, political philosophy — understood here, I think, as the application of philosophical ideas to political debates (whereas political theory, in this telling, seems to entail either the creation of new constellations of political ideas, or the political critique of other ideas like gender, race, etc.) — was more or less dead in the water during the Cold War before Rawls almost single-handedly revived it. There was social science, and philosophy, mostly separate, there were polemics and political movements, but the idea philosophers had something distinct and decisive to say about politics had gone out of fashion, a casualty of the rise of the social sciences (and maybe a little of liberal antitotalitarianism, which often held that politics and abstract ideas shouldn’t mix). Post-Rawls, political philosophy made a big comeback. If I read Forrester right, it was a classic right-person-at-the-right-time scenario. Rawls’s theory — big, ambitious, clearly-stated but with enough wriggle room to provide good openings for interlocutors — came at a time when the Cold War consensus across the liberal spectrum, from political parties to academic departments, was looking stale and was under attack from the left and from the right. Rawls didn’t single-handedly win the fight for his vision, but he did determine the battlefield: that of political philosophy.
Notionally, right and left both felt the impact from this sally of what we could call the center or liberal left. Both reacted in the field of political philosophy. But they reacted in different ways, and the blows had markedly different impacts on both… or maybe just the contexts made the blows feel different… the point is, Forrester illustrates that throughout the rest of the twentieth century and beyond, political philosophers of all stripes were doing things Rawls’s way even when they rejected his conclusions, and that many other discursive actors — policymakers, politicians, academics in other fields — also got sucked into the political philosophy orbit Rawls made a hot neighborhood.
But different sorts of players could adapt differently. To put it simply, the right, especially rising free-market libertarians like Rawls’s cothinker-turned-nemesis Robert Nozick, could more easily turn Rawls’s premises and operating methods — especially, to be blunt, the kind of bullshit thought games Rawls used — to their ends than could leftists, especially Marxists. Leftists who tried to play the game the Rawlsian way by and large found themselves abandoning traditional areas of strength, like a real political theory — a concept of change and an analysis of power, in their case rooted in the working class — in favor of various zeitgeisty flighty concepts — focus on methods like direct democracy is one prominent culprit — that haven’t helped much. That’s the real way in which the retreat to the academy has harmed the left, by the way- not appreciating the importance of difference, the way anti-woke left critics (invariably academics or other scribblers themselves) will tell you.
In the end, Forrester doesn’t want us to throw Rawls out. I think this is good even if I’m not sure what uses we’re going to put him to- I don’t have to, people better at abstraction can figure it out. Not disregarding him means not making the mistake that a lot of radicals make of disregarding the thought of the opposition, especially opposition that doesn’t mirror our structural thinking (as the far right often does- you can get a lot farther quoting Carl Schmitt in a lot of leftist circles than you can quoting Rawls or any other liberal). Rawls, as best I can tell, fits my conception of liberalism as existing in the space between revolution and counterrevolution, the basic dynamic of modern history. Liberalism seeks to elide the revolution-counterrevolution dynamic through various techniques and alternative foci for attention and effort, and often has enough power behind it to get people and whole societies going for a while. All that effort does produce insight and techniques worth knowing about- see Foucault’s lament that the left has t got a “governmentality,” an art of governing, but liberals do. Arguably, that’s most of what liberalism is. If we’re going to take and wield power, we might want to pay attention, and certainly if we’re going to understand the worlds liberalism has shaped we need to, as well. *****
Joseph Hansen, “Death Claims” (1973) – Murder and insurance fraud in rundown California beach towns and amongst used booksellers — fancy first edition types, not the kind of places I frequent — is the order of the day in this second in the Dave Brandstetter mysteries. Dave is an insurance investigator- tough, cynical, honest, and gay. Hansen was the first big openly gay American crime writer, and Brandstetter walks in the shoes of hardboiled private eyes like the Continental Op and, especially, Philip Marlowe. Ray Chandler didn’t like gay people much- to the extent Chandler was a leftist, he was very much in the old west coast, Jack London mold that saw deviation from the norms of white working class masculinity as a threat. But I think Hansen saw in Marlowe, the archetypal detective hero Chandler created, a way to explore gay themes. Chandler might not have liked the gays but he made a hero out of a loner with sensitive perception, fine taste (Marlowe is forever judging clothes and interior decor), and a code of honor which he rigorously adheres to despite it being at odds with the society around him… perhaps that sounded familiar to Joseph Hansen.
In any event- John Oats, life insurance policyholder, goes for a swim in the ocean during unlikely weather and drowns. There’s a variety of people around him — a new young lover, an angry ex-wife now shacked up with his former partner in bookselling, a squeaky-clean cowboy actor — but signs point to his son, with whom he was close. Brandstetter unknots the mystery through persistence and perceptiveness, and it helps he sees things — especially certain aspects of relationships — that are opaque to others, especially cops. In the end, we wind up with a tale of opiate addiction and blackmail, and there wind up being plenty of candidates for who took John on his final swim. On top of it all, Dave has his own domestic issues to worry about, as both he and his boyfriend are in love with dead men. This was by and large pretty good, though I could see it getting a little tired, over the course of ten or twelve books, Dave solving these mysteries basically using gaydar. But they’re decent crime novels and an interesting depiction of gay life just before Stonewall- “Death Claims” is set in 1968, and I’m curious if subsequent installments will deal with the increased prominence of gay people and their claims for rights. ****’
Jeannette Ng, “Under The Pendulum Sun” (2017) – A friend of mine who read this book and didn’t like it described it as “claustrophobic.” Amusingly enough, so did one of the quotes from a positive review put on the back of my copy of the book! Well, I agree with both of them. This dark fantasy novel, about a Victorian lady who goes to the realm of the Fae to find her brother, a missionary who went to spread the word of the Lord to the fair folk, does indeed summon the feeling of the walls closing in. The lady, Catherine, has to stay in a creepy old house. Stuff shifts around. No one talks normal. Eventually her brother comes back but he’s cold and probably traumatized. Also, a weird fairy queen takes up residence in the house. It’s ominous!
It’s an interesting concept but also a little bit of a strange call to have this whole fantastic world of fae and restrain most of the action to one creepy house? Moreover, the world of the fae, what they can and cannot do, is so arbitrary it’s often hard to get a grip on the stakes of the narrative. I get that it’s hard to make irrationality, like what the fae represent, consistent while maintaining its essence, but if you can’t figure it out, you should go back to the drawing board rather than writing a novel about the fae. Ng, one of the big liberal social media firebrands of current SFF, also partakes of the idea that the Victorians were so stupidly fanatical they’d try to convert, in this instance, — nonhuman people. — Fanatical, sure, stupid, no- when Victorians threw their lives away, they usually had a reason, and they could be pretty canny about their use of the God stuff, even when they wholeheartedly believed in it. There’s a predictable twist and some weird sex stuff and ultimately it just wasn’t that interesting. I can’t actually remember why I put this book on my list, I’m not normally into goth-y stuff, but I’ll try not to judge the aesthetic as a whole by this lacking representative. **’
Marie Vieux-Chauvet, “Love, Anger, Madness” (1968) (translated from the French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur) – This was great! Marie Vieux-Chauvet was already a leading light in Haitian letters when she wrote this triptych of novellas in 1960. Born to an upper-class family, she was one of few women accepted in Haitian literary circles and gained major acclaim in France, where Simone de Beauvoir ushered “Love, Anger, Madness” into print in 1968.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the ghoulish CIA-backed dictator, was in charge of Haiti by then, and you can see his censors wouldn’t like “Love, Anger, Madness.” The latter two novellas deal directly with people — families from the Haitian upper/middle class, and intellectuals — menaced by totalitarian movements led by openly kleptocratic thugs and manned by “armed beggars.” The first takes place in a similar context but has other issues in mind as well. If the translation of the Haitian Creole Wikipedia entry on Vieux-Chauvet is right, the Duvalier regime bought up all the copies of her books in Haiti to keep them from the public, and killed some of her relatives. She fled to New York, where she died in obscurity a few years later.
“Love” is probably my favorite of the three, the story of one Claire, oldest daughter of a locally-prominent family and an old maid (and virgin) at thirty-nine. Told in queasily intimate first person, we are immersed in her jealousies, mainly of her sisters, one married to a white Frenchman and the other wild and promiscuous, in her neurotic rituals, and her fears. The Frenchman flirts and dallies with all three sisters while helping to strip their part of the country dry of resources for his firm back home, and then wonders why no one rebels against the secret police who help him do it. The sounds of torture waft from the police headquarters at night, and the local secret police chief is one of few men to indicate interest in Claire. She devises dramas and tries, with more or less success, to conscript the people around her into them, and in the end, bursts out in violence against the restraints around her. If you’re used to literature about women going mad due to the constraints on rich white Anglo-American women, well, the pressure cooker is even worse in a place like Haiti.
The other two stories are also great. “Anger” is about a family that wakes up one day to find the blackshirted “armed beggars” taking their land. This is no social revolution, there isn’t even a pretense of redistribution beyond the hands of the criminal elite. Like many Haitian households, this one is multigenerational, and all the family members stew and consider their own vengeance. The grandfather and crippled grandchild dream of revolutionary revenge. The mother drinks, the son plays soccer with supporters of the blackshirts and considers how to save his honor. The father equivocates and winds up selling his daughter to the criminals. He double crosses them, but the damage is done. In “Madness,” Haitian poets and intellectuals find out how much their writing and internal debates are worth as they’re besieged in a broken-down old house as the blackshirts take over.
The prose is beautiful, by turns lyrical and epigrammatic and never overly flowery or sentimental- Vieux-Chauvet knew the Caribbean, knew racial lines shifting like sand but hard as steel, knew vodou, knew poverty, knew what sex looked like in this kind of environment where power and despair loomed so large, knew the beauty and the ugliness of the island, respected the power of all of it, and rhapsodized none of it. Her Haiti and her Haitians are mythological — if one people on this earth deserves to be mythologized, it is they — but entirely human. This accomplishment alone would put this work at the top of my list in terms of fiction I’ve read this year, but there’s more to enjoy. I recommend this highly to anyone who likes quality fiction. *****
SPECIAL DOUBLE AUDIOBOOK REVIEW
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. ****