I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
In the days of my late childhood, I fell in love with two sagas: The Lord of the Rings and the story of Jack Ryan. I broke the spines of both sets of books with repeated rereading. J.R.R. Tolkien and Tom Clancy created worlds of adventure saturated with purpose in which a boy could find refuge. Even though it’s been years since I’ve read one of his books, I was saddened to hear of Tom Clancy’s death. Jack Ryan, Clancy’s creation, was a historian turned spy. He had a lot in common with Frodo Baggins, Tolkien’s diminutive champion, an upper-class flâneur turned martyr. Both went on great, world-historical adventures. They went tentatively at first, at the bidding of a mentor, and then decisively, driven by a sense of decency. Frodo's quest was to destroy a ring of great -- and therefore inherently malevolent -- power. To destroy the ring, he had to sneak into Mordor, an evil land, evading the watch of Sauron, the Dark Lord. Ryan's Quest was less straightforward. It begins with his departure from London to deliver pictures of the Red October to James Greer, his mentor at the CIA. But like Gandalf charging Frodo with the ring’s destruction, Greer, and then the President, entrust Ryan with a quest of steadily growing importance. The Cold War mostly figures as atmospheric backdrop in The Hunt for Red October. It is the story of how Ryan comes to meet Marko Ramius, a Soviet submarine captain, who is trying to defect to the United States along with his ship, the Red October. Ramius, like Frodo evading the Eye of Sauron, sneaks towards the U.S. dodging satellites -- both American and Soviet -- and sonar from other submarines and the SOSUS network that spanned the gap between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. Ryan is the book’s protagonist because of his sympathy for Ramius; he is the first American to figure out what Ramius is trying to do, inferring the Russian submarine captain’s intensions on the basis of scant evidence. Ramius is driven by heartbreak; his wife died at the hands of a drunken doctor, who in Clancy's schematic political morality stands in for the systemic failures of communism. The book's minor characters are well-drawn. Jones, the American sonarman who finds the Red October in the vast North Atlantic, is a skinny Caltech dropout who's trained his ears by listening to Bach; Bart Mancuso, the captain of Jones's submarine, has the wisdom to direct his entire ship to follow Jones's hunch. Absent Jones's ability and Mancuso's willingness to trust his subordinate and defy his superiors, the plot of the novel would come unraveled. Clancy sketches many others of high rank and low. He gives just enough detail to bring them to life before moving the plot along. The genius of Clancy's story, its basic believability, like Tolkien's, comes from a firm commitment to letting the plot unfold logically once the initial hook is in place. It is perhaps difficult to believe there is a ring of power that confirms upon its bearer numinous strength, or that a Russian missile submarine commander, in charge of the newest and most secret sub, would defect along with all his officers. But once you buy the beginning, the rest of the books proceed with rigor. Fantasy, as a genre, gives the author more flexibility in this regard than thrillers. Tolkien distinguishes himself from his imitators by abjuring that flexibility, and understating the fantastic in his novels. The ring conveys great power, but it is never really used as a source of power. Clancy is similarly reticent in Red October. Unlike lesser genre novels, calamity is not constantly averted at the last minute; undesirable outcomes are, however, avoided. The shortcomings of both epics as works of literature account for their deep resonance with me as a kid. The ancillary good guys are clearly described -- Barliman, an innkeeper who shelters Frodo, can “see through a brick wall in time” and Skip Tyler, an old friend of Jack Ryan's can singlehandedly outprogram a team of “Beltway Bandits.” But the villains, such as they are, are formless. Sauron appears directly in only one scene in the Lord of the Rings, when he interrogates one of Frodo's friends in a brief interchange, most of which takes place off stage; he is mostly an amorfous source of anxiety and ill will. Similarly, though there is a cunning rival submarine captain who tries to destroy the Red October towards the end, and a cook who is a spy for Soviet military intelligence, neither are true villains for Clancy. He gives them their due as men honorably serving a cause. The Soviet system, rather than any person, is Clancy's Sauron. This is why he places such great stake in the death of Ramius's wife; otherwise the evils of communism are mere implications of a lack of individual autonomy. The Clancy of Red October doesn't betray much interest in political philosophy, though he is interested in the ethos of shared endeavor -- one can easily imagine a Russian Tom Clancy, born and raised in Murmansk, writing the same novel with the American and Russian roles symmetrically switched. Had Mancuso's wife died at the hands of America's broken, profiteering health care system, he might have fled to egalitarian Russia and been welcomed. Clancy's nationalism is, in this sense, superficial. His narrative lingers constantly on men like Ryan himself, his mentor Greer, Sonarman Jones, Capt. Mancuso, and others who fight the system while remaining loyal to the principles the system imperfectly claims to uphold. Much has been made of Clancy's use of technology in his novels. The truth is there isn't any more technology than there needs to be to move the plot along. Just as Tolkien's linguistic fluency makes for vivd Elves -- in the books “Gilthoniel a Elbereth!” has force as an incantation, giving hope to the good guys and making bad guys quiver -- so too does Clancy's nuanced understanding of the functioning of passive and active sonar drive the plot of Red October forward in lifelike fashion. My favorite scene in Red October comes near the end. Ryan and Ramius have fooled most of the world into thinking the Red October sunk. They sail the submarine, crippled, into a U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Va., after hiding from Soviet spy satellites. The CIA faked a truck crash to shut down the bridge spanning the entrance to Chesapeake Bay to allow the sub to pass by unseen. A gaggle of high-ranking naval officers gather to greet the submarine. Ryan, who was the only American aboard the submarine, had been talking with the Soviet defectors. He told them, accurately, that the most impressive thing about America they would find would be supermarkets. When the submarine docks, Ryan wearily demurs from celebration, as the narrator observes that “it wasn't his fraternity.” I was about ten when I first read these words, and I hardly knew what a fraternity was. But Clancy understood both brotherhood and the detachment one feels observing brotherhood from a remove. “In the control room the men were standing around exchanging grins, but they were quiet, as if they feared the magic of the moment would evaporate all too quickly. For Ryan it already had,” Clancy writes. Ryan, though dressed as a naval officer, wasn't one, and so he leaves for Langley: “He walked up the gangway against traffic. No one seemed to notice him.” As Tolkien’s Frodo told his best friend Sam, “It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” The Hunt for Red October was first published by the Naval Institute Press. It was a cult classic before it became a bestseller. Clancy stumbled afterwards. His next book, Red Storm Rising, was a workmanlike imagining of conventional war between the U.S. and Russia. It was followed by Patriot Games, a comparatively slight book that burnishes Ryan's backstory and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, the only time Clancy again equalled Red October in narrative texture. It has Clancy’s strongest opening lines: “Business was being conducted. All kinds of business. Everyone there knew it. Everyone there was part of it. Everyone there needed it. And yet everyone there was in one way or another dedicated to stopping it.” It is the closest Clancy came to le Carré. Clancy lost track of Ryan's defining feature after The Cardinal of the Kremlin. In the first three books, Ryan not only did not aspire to great power, but also did not attain it. Clancy’s later books thrust Ryan Zeliglike up the hierarchy of power, rather as if Frodo found himself accidentally King of Gondor. Clancy's facility with plot kept me (and millions of others) reading for a while, but hobbits look silly wearing crowns. Clancy's heavy-handed populism proved his downfall as a writer. He can hardly restrain his glee when, in a later book, a plane crashes into the Capitol, killing almost all of America's political leadership and leaving Jack Ryan as a righteous president. It was around the time of that book -- Debt of Honor -- that Clancy began lending his name out to other authors, franchising the goodwill he had earned with Red October. He himself became a system, a lucrative factory for the production of technothrillers. He became a man that the Jack Ryan of Red October, who drunkenly quotes Shelley's "Ozymandias": “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair” would not much have liked. Clancy caught the spirit of the late Cold War as well as anyone, before catching the spirit of the Tea Party. Red October closes with Ryan’s moral disappointment in his CIA superiors and with himself. Ryan is aware of his incipient resignation to the corrupting influence of spycraft. He finds himself “forgetting the seaman’s code,” and laments his own ability to compromise. The subtlety went out of Clancy’s writing long before his death, but not before he gave us the story of Jack Ryan, reluctant spy, who set out from his house to deliver pictures of a submarine and ended up delivering the submarine itself.
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I met Iris Chang about a year and a half ago. She was passing through Los Angeles, and she stopped at the bookstore where I used to work to sign some copies of her book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. The book hadn't rewritten history and showered her with critical acclaim like The Rape of Nanking. But this time her book tour had taken her to Chinese-American cultural centers, which she seemed to appreciate. She was talkative in a quiet sort of way and lingered for a long time talking to the staff and browsing the shelves.The news that she committed suicide is a shock. As are the suggestions that she was driven to this by looking too long and too hard into the parts of human history that rest of the world works so hard to forget. We need historians and authors like Chang to remind us of what we are capable of. (More on Chang from the SF Chronicle.)
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn't have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut's first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I'm sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing "so it goes" today in response to Vonnegut's death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: "When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is 'So it goes.'"Also, I found Vonnegut's official site to be particularly poignant today.
Reading the books of Ryszard Kapuscinski, it sometimes seemed to me that he had he had slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every dusty village in the forgotten corners of the world. He brought us with him to peer at the world's unknown "little" wars. There are many who, in the last few decades, have taken up this sort of reporting, people like Jon Lee Anderson, William Langewiesche, and Mark Bowden, but none possess the sympathetic eye of Kapuscinski.In his book Imperium, Kapuscinski chronicles the invasion of Poland by the Soviets in 1939, which he witnessed as a boy, and one can see how being one of history's forgotten people shaped his view of the world. Kapuscinski's writing is notable as much for what is there as for what it lacks, namely a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it, which even the best Western reporters are rarely able to avoid. Living much of his life behind the Iron Curtain, he could write about oppressed people from the point of view of the oppressed, but from enough distance to eschew any of the ideologies involved. He had a gentle eye for details and always satisfied by being just as incredulous, weary, and terrified as I would have been had I somehow found myself in the astonishing situations he sometimes ended up in. No tough guy swagger for Kapuscinki.And those moments, they were incredible: Kapuscinski, out of bribe money watching his driver plow though flaming roadblocks in the Yoruba country of Nigeria in The Soccer War; arriving in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane in The Shadow of the Sun; stuck for days in a stifling, crowded airport in Yakutsk with little hope of getting a plane out of there in Imperium.But Kapuscinski does not assume he is the only one with a story to tell. For entire books - Shah of Shahs about the abuses of the Shah of Iran and The Emperor about the mad Ethiopian king Haile Selassie - he turns his pen over to the people who were there. Those two books fit into the now familiar genre of "oral history," and they provide an invaluable look into the lives of the oppressed.Kapuscinski's singular point of view is perhaps best summed up by what he wrote in a section of The Soccer War about his time in Ghana: "The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves."Kapuscinski brought that different reality to his readers, and in doing so helped shed light on the forgotten corners of the world.Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the PAP news agency said. He was 74. The AP obit.Some Links:New work from KapuscinskiMy review of Shah of ShahsA bit on Imperium (scroll down)A bit on The Shadow of the Sun (scroll down)Excerpt from ImperiumExcerpt from Shah of ShahsExcerpt from The EmperorExcerpt from The Soccer WarExcerpt from The Shadow of the SunExcerpt from Another Day of LifeWikipedia bioKapuscinski's writing in GrantaBill Buford interviews Kapuscinski
TriQuarterly, the long-running trail-blazing literary journal more or less dreamed into existence by the late Charles Newman, is apparently no more, due to budget cuts at Northwestern University. Newman's foreword to his first issue as editor, reprinted at A Public Space, should be required reading for anyone thinking about the purpose and future of the little magazine and its role in the artistic ecology.