Category Archives: Self-Promotion

New essay on Penelope Fitzgerald

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a ragtag fugitive Canadian Reformed newspaper on a lonely quest to stay in business without dumbing down. I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people.

Historical novels generally work by immersion. Like Pixar movies or the better sort of video game, they bludgeon you with detail, distracting you with endless small sensible facts from any thought of the present-day world. This is a perfectly sensible method, yet the layers and layers of explanation—President Lincoln lifted the yellowed, battered envelope from the desk. Like most mail, it took months getting anywhere, and arrived travel-stained, smelling of gin…—implicitly acknowledge, and thus reinforce, the reader’s sense of distance from the very world into which these details initiate us.

For a few chapters, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995) pretends to be this kind of book. Jacob Dietmahler, a German student, arrives at the estate of his friend Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, AKA Fritz, AKA Novalis, who we know (if for no other reason than that we’ve read the blurb) will become a major German Romantic poet and, through his impact on George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, a formative influence on modern fantasy literature. It’s laundry day when they arrive, so we pick up a few details about what minor German nobility of the late eighteenth century wore, and how often it got cleaned (only once a year, in the Hardenbergs’ case: a massive, daylong operation). One by one, conveniently, the Hardenburgs introduce themselves to Dietmahler, who will be, it seems, our point-of-view character.

Sixteen pages in, the bottom drops out. Dietmahler disappears—we don’t see him again for over half the book. Orderly sequence of event gives way to potted biographies, short out-of-context conversations, poetic asides, scene-setting details for scenes that barely arrive, all of this cheek-a-jowl on the page, sometimes together in the same paragraph. Constantly, Fitzgerald plays with our distance from the time period, at times speaking of the characters with great and easy intimacy, and at times turning essayist or intellectual historian, throwing details over her shoulder that none of the characters could possibly know: “It was at this time, when Fritz was emptying the sick room chamberpots, and later … that he was first described in a letter by the critic Friedrich Schlegel.” Who in the story knows this? Where is this narrator talking from? By the end of the book, we have, in this way, been Fritz’s friend, his fiancee, his protective and confused mother, his eventual readers, his intellectual heirs. He exists for us on many levels at once, as does—we realize with a gasp—the mystical, neoplatonic world that his works describe: a world in which brokenness and perfection somehow live together in a companionable, elderly-German-couple silence. In other words, the book enacts, in its structure, the world Novalis imagined, and tried to live in: a world in which Fritz’s short, disappointing life and Novalis’s long literary triumph coinhere.

The Blue Flower is the most obviously experimental of Fitzgerald’s nine novels, but it shares with its predecessors her amazing subtlety, her humor, and her predilection for meditative rather than chronologically linear structure. Most of all, it shares those books’ attachment to the sorts of characters that Hermione Lee, in her excellent new biography of Fitzgerald, describes as follows: “‘[D]ecent chaps’ who struggled and did not succeed…women who were always interrupted…vulnerable children…people who loved silently and without much hope.” She writes of defeats so small, so decorous, and so final that at least some of the characters barely register them as such. The hero of The Bookshop (1978) opens a bookshop in a provincial English town, and is ruined by the aspersions of an obnoxious blueblood. Offshore (1979) concerns a romantic relationship that never quite gets around to existing except in the minds of its two principals. Human Voices (1980) and At Freddie’s (1981) concern themselves with requited and unrequited love affairs, respectively, both equally doomed. And so on, through the series of historical novels that capped her career—Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower, her recognized masterpiece. Only God could lavish more loving attention on losers than Penelope Fitzgerald does.

There are two things about Lee’s biography, meticulously researched and marvelously organized as it is, that make the book hard to finish. First, it shows, in pitiless detail, that Fitzgerald loved, and was, these people in life, not only in art. Her husband was a well-intentioned failure, an ineffectual drunk with whom she’d stopped sleeping by the early ‘60s, a period that she spent too busy to write (!), cadging a living from ill-paying jobs, raising too-thin children on a leaky houseboat. Which sank. I would not wish Fitzgerald’s midlife on a bank robber, let alone on one of the great postwar English novelists. (The other is Muriel Spark. There is no third.) Secondly, when Fitzgerald does at last “succeed,” she is still subject to the most appalling male condescension this side of Mad Men. Her first publisher refers to his backlist of woman-written novels as “a branch of gynecology.” Literary journalists call her “shy Penelope.” After she wins the Booker Prize for Offshore, she sits, bemused, through a BBC panel discussion devoted to the proposition that the judges picked the wrong book. (They didn’t.)

Such is often the fate of the smart, compassionate, epigrammatic novel that nobody describes as “sprawling,” that doesn’t lend itself to panel discussions of The Contemporary Situation, that takes up more space in the memory than on the bookshelf. It is only partial compensation to see these books enjoy the sort of gradual triumph that culminates in the sort of fat, loving, judicious biography that Hermione Lee has written. But the lateness of Fitzgerald’s reward only reinforces the insight, ultimately theological, to which this quietly devoted Anglican writer’s novels bear witness: Humans are too hopelessly ill-adapted to this life for it to be the only one.

New book review: Matt Taibbi’s THE DIVIDE

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a small but determined Canadian Reformed newspaper. (I fall in with the oddest crowds; life’s more fun that way.) I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people. 

What Matt Taibbi’s The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap offers US readers is obvious: it lets us know, with relentless clarity, that our government has all the moral legitimacy of a bridge troll. It informs us that our Justice Department has a stated policy (google “Holder memo”) against prosecuting even obviously criminal activity when it is committed by giant employers (google “HSNBC cartel money laundering”). It tells of black people rounded up en masse and charged after the fact with offenses like standing in their own doorway. It tells of the effort required to fight these charges, effort that essentially precludes having a day job. It tells of welfare bureaucrats preemptively searching the homes of applicants, even rifling through immigrant women’s underwear to see if they own anything attractive enough to suggest unlisted male sources of support. (It’s all constitutional, by the way: 1971’s Wyman v. James found that the Fourth Amendment basically doesn’t apply to folks on public assistance.) It shows not merely that the US justice system is harder on the caught-red-handed poor than on the rich—who needs a book to see that? It shows us that our justice system willfully ignores the crimes of too-big-to-fail (or -prosecute) banks and actively aggresses against the poor:

If you’re the wrong kind of person and you get caught up in the criminal justice system, or stuck in the welfare bureaucracy, or mired in debt, you can’t get out without navigating a maze so complex and dispiriting and irrational that it can’t possibly even be mapped. … On the other side of the coin, the secret to conquering the financial bureaucracy isn’t savvy in a business sense, or the ability to spot a good entrepreneurial idea. Instead, it’s pure bureaucratic force, the ability to throw a hundred lawyers at every problem … In other words, you need to be a bureaucracy in order to survive a bureaucracy.

I hate violence and I distrust all talk of “revolution.” But by the end of this book I not only wanted to occupy Wall Street, I wanted to destroy it with my bare hands.

What The Divide offers to readers outside the US is less obvious, but just as substantial. In journalistic terms, it’s an extremely impressive piece of reportage. In literary terms, it testifies to Taibbi’s increasing mastery over the arts of clear and simple organization and polemical prose style. Some readers got turned off his excellent previous book, Griftopia, wherein he does things like calling Alan Greenspan the largest bodily-opening-of-interest-to-proctologists in the universe (he may not have said it like that), or likening Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” (I was about to call this a mixed metaphor, but it turns out vampire squids are a real thing. Who knew? Matt Taibbi, apparently.) In all of these cases, Taibbi provided more than enough history, context, and new reportage to justify such intemperate characterizations, but he forfeited that contingent of readers who equate passionate anger with journalistic unreliability. (Apparently some people live in a world where no fact, soberly analyzed, leads to rage. That’s cool. I live on Earth.) Those readers will get further with The Divide, which lets us construct more of the epithets for ourselves.

What the book also offers non-US readers is, I’m afraid, a vision of their possible future. In a mostly positive review of the book, the writer Maureen Tkacik—herself an essential chronicler of our political woes—takes Taibbi to task for failing to talk about neoliberalism, the ideology behind the conditions he decries. While I think The Divide is fine the way it is, I agree with Tkacik that our increasing global belief in the power of self-interest—uncut with any of Adam Smith’s passionate concern for human sympathy—is at or near the heart of all this. So is the neoliberals’ fanciful assertion that markets, if left alone by government (whatever that could possibly mean, given that governments make markets possible in the first place), will reach equilibrium at full employment. Everybody just manage your interests well, and we’ll all have jobs! In one virtuoso passage, Taibbi describes the “vast system of increasingly unmanageable bureaucracies, spanning both the public and the private sectors,” that have made it “literally a crime” to be poor:

[I]t attacks people without money, particularly nonwhite people, with a weirdly venomous kind of hatred, treating them like they’re already guilty of something, which of course they are—namely, being that which we’re all afraid of becoming.

But if the smart management of one’s own interests is our social contract, then need really does become something larger than a mere inconvenience—it’s a flouting of that very contract. You must not have been seeing to your own interests well, or you wouldn’t have lived in the kind of neighborhood where cops pick people up just, you know, because. And we’ll throw charges at you till something sticks, or till you miss a court date and thus acquire an outstanding warrant, or till you get so tired of being chewed-up in bureaucracy that you plead out. But your real crime was always need.

The more countries succumb to neoliberalism’s attenuated view of human nature and social order, which pretends to be science (read Yves Smith’s ECONned for more on that) while ignoring much of the evidence provided by, you know, actual history—it’s no accident that economic history has been marginalized within econ departments—the more transgressive simple human need becomes. This refusal simply to be the dependent creatures we are, and to acknowledge the legitimacy of the dependents around us: this is the truly militant atheism of our time. And it makes Richard Dawkins look downright huggable by comparison.

The Bible calls all this “grinding the faces of the poor.” But what kind of loser reads that?

MURAP Conference Appearance

This week my wife and I are returning to Durham for the annual Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program conference. MURAP is a program that attempts to diversify the professoriate by training minority undergraduates (or undergrads who do scholarship that pertains to/acknowledges the existence of minorities) to, basically, be grad students. I worked as MURAP’s Writing Coordinator for four summers—basically, I coached the students through the actual writing, gave feedback on technical and style stuff, told people they were swell and could handle it—and it was my favorite job ever, pretty much, insofar as my writing hardly makes enough money to constitute a “job.” It’ll be good to hear all this year’s gossip and see some dear old faces. My paper, which I deliver on Friday, has to do with the novelist Helen DeWitt. The conference theme is Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice in the Internet Age, so it makes total sense that I’m talking about a white lady (?!). (The initial theme was “Social Media, Social Justice,” and I barely fit that rubric. But one plays to one’s strengths.)

I may eventually post the paper here if anybody there likes it.

Should probably put this on my CV or something.

New piece in Books & Culture

I disburden myself of an opinion about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King over here.

New essays, kind of

Identity Theory is no more, apparently, which means death for the two book reviews I had pending there. (It also means no more free shots at the Powells.com Review-a-Day slot. Just when I was getting used to it!) I guess I’ll post them here, for lack of any better options: book reviews go stale fast. And does anything say “game changer” like an unpublished book review that the author posted on his personal blog?! Reel, mortals …

Orphaned Review of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short

We all were waiting for someone to explain, definitively and clearly, what happened to the world’s money in 2008, and while we waited it kept on happening. As I write this*, the newspapers (a metaphor, these days) are full of the Goldman Sachs boys’ most recent evasions of Congressional blame for having nearly wrecked the markets (another metaphor). Between their shamelessness, and Congress’s cowardice, and our inability to attend to all the explanations that events like these require, we can expect to see sequels and reboots of this horror movie before the reviews of Part One are in. 

Nevertheless, Michael Lewis’s attempt at an explanation is valiant and necessary. Lewis has a reputation as the best kind of reporter, someone who can successfully explain complex social changes with the use of rich characterization and revealing anecdotes. He has Tom Wolfe’s keen eyes and winning flippancy, but lacks, thank God, Wolfe’s snobbery, his talent for siding with Goliath against David and then asking us to admire his contrarianism. This sense of humor (and humanity) makes him an ideal writer on finance. Indeed, if The Big Short has any flaw, it is, surprisingly for a book about credit default swaps and bond trading, an overreliance on its human characters. Lewis is so good at exposition—which in this case means rendering understandable the behavior of impersonal economic forces—that I really wasn’t as interested in his analyses of the characters of actual persons, such as the socially graceless financial analyst Steve Eisman or the one-eyed, Asperger’s-afflicted bond trader Michael Burry.

These two were among the first people to realize that crisis was in the offing, and they, along with a handful of others (a prototypical greedy salesman; a group of hippy-dippy survivalists who establish a capital-management firm), made billions betting against the solvency of the American economy. They provide the book with its angle. Rather than asking, as so many have, why “no one” saw the economic collapse coming, Lewis, with Swiftian self-assurance, assumes a general incompetence on the part of Wall Street generally and examines the few who got things right. His cynicism is based in personal experience. Lewis’s first book, Liar’s Poker (1989), was a memoir of the years he spent cluelessly accruing money (while losing other peoples’) on Wall Street, engaged in tasks of “no social utility.” He wrote it as a call to arms, but a generation of college students have, he tells us, read it as a How-To-Succeed-in-Business manual.

The prevalence of that kind of stupidity is, finally, the message of this book. The Big Short demonstrates, again and again, that the primary problem with our Masters of Capital is not greed but incompetence. (In so doing, by the way, it refutes the predictable conservative charge that feckless poor people caused the crisis. It’s clear from Lewis’s telling that subprime mortgage lending was a marginal part of the economy until, in the late 1980s, bond traders figured out how to make large short-term gains from such loans, thus creating an incentive for huge sums of money to be thrown at those who couldn’t repay it. Thanks, fellows.)

We have been in the habit of justifying Wall Street in Darwinian terms: their methods, arcane and destabilizing as they are, will always lead capital (by the nuts) to those places where natural selection, in the form of consumer need, requires it. They aren’t nice people, but—like Kara Thrace or Jack Bauer—they get the job done. What becomes overwhelmingly clear from Michael Lewis’s account is that, as far as the bond market is concerned, there is no “job.” Bond traders’ behavior has no justification, Darwinian or other. Their “financial products” not only had no relationship to economic reality but created incentives for ignoring that reality. These products were like cancers, which create an environment conducive to the production of more cells nobody needs. Or they were like bad metaphors, which, as metaphors tend to do, proliferate, creating further, complementary metaphors, trapping more and more of the world within a faulty conceptual scheme. It is folly to expect repentance from these people; like the ex-Nazis that history shakes out of hiding every few years, they will never apologize, because they have grown accustomed to living in a fiction. The question for all of us is how not to live there with them.  

*Late April, 2010.

Coming next week (after I do some light re-editing): A review of Marilynne Robinson’s amazing Absence of Mind that will be summarily ignored, like the book.

New essays

Two new book reviews up at Identity Theory: George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For and Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us. Read them both. The books, I mean. They’re very good books.

New essay…

… which basically recapitulates Monday’s post, but I’m still proud of it because it does that thing Hugh Kenner, Gore Vidal, and a few of my other favorite essayists do, and which I’ve been trying to do for several months with no success: It more or less saves topic sentences and thesis statements for the end, and lets storytelling carry the argument.

In just over 350 words, it does a fair amount of work, perhaps at the cost of clarity. We’ll see. The Banner is publishing it in April with some changes (all the cyborg stuff is gone), so here’s the original:

Farewell, Amazon

I first heard of Amazon.com from a crush object, library-science student and sometime correspondent in 1997. At the bottom of her emails ran an automatic signature: “AMAZON.COM: World’s Largest Bookstore.” This was, I soon learned, a bit of cheekiness, as Amazon wasn’t a “bookstore” at all, in the received sense of the word. Rather—and rather revolutionarily—it was a cyber-hub from which books could be ordered anywhere, sent anywhere.

Like every book lover I know, I came for the convenience—and stayed for the prices, the customer reviews, the “So You’d Like To …” guides. Amazon combined the coolness of a great bookstore with the ghost-convenience of Internet shopping. One knew (quaint fact!) that they were headquartered in Seattle, but they seemed to represent an era whose buzzwords were “multinational,” “network,” “globalize.” And if this new era had its dangers—maquiladoras in Juarez, plant closings in the Midwest—hadn’t it also given activists the tools to plan, against those very evils, uprisings like 1999’s in (of all places) Seattle? Cyborgs were a trendy metaphor back then—Marxist academics used them to show how the word “natural” underwrites oppressive gender and class roles, and futurists used them to talk about the “enhancements” that will soon allow us to sidestep bodily limitation entirely—and Amazon was a big, smiley-faced cyborg company.

Time passed.The world, Amazon, and I all grew more complicated. There were whispers of monopoly, of George Orwell e-books deleted from the Kindles of people who’d paid for them. Then in January, as part of a spat over e-book pricing, Amazon stopped offering new copies of all Macmillan titles. If you want to buy Marilynne Robinson’s next novel, you’ll have to do it from a brick-and-mortar store—if you can find one—or buy a used copy, to neither publisher’s nor author’s profit, from, yes, Amazon.

In a “networked” era, boycotts seem naïve. But those fears about monopoly no longer do. So I’m saying farewell to Amazon. The world’s largest bookstore will do fine without me, and for the sake of my blood pressure, I will learn to do fine without them.