I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Has there ever been another writer of dark, morbid, surrealistic fiction who is as warm and humane as Nathaniel Hawthorne? I just finished reading The Marble Faun, his final novel, and what struck me is how much he cares about the people in the story, how fully he feels their isolation and estrangement. From Poe to Kafka, from Melville to W. G. Sebald, alienation and the uncanny have usually come to us with a chill, a coldness that questions not only the nature of human relationships but even the possibility of them. So it was a shock to read this surprisingly rich story about alienated friends and lovers, who are eventually drawn closer to each other by the very coldness that has separated them during their heightened, trancelike experiences. The Marble Faun was published in 1860, and it’s very different from anything in Hawthorne’s famous earlier novels – The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance. It deals with expatriates in Rome, and is generally considered the start of the “Americans in Europe” genre that Henry James would later develop. It’s not a ghost story, and doesn’t draw much on the old gothic elements that Jane Austen, for instance, parodies in Northanger Abbey. The eerie, imaginative side of The Marble Faun comes less from the events than from the alertness Hawthorne brings to his characters’ perceptions. The novel is surreal largely because Hawthorne sees the world with disorienting vividness: There is a singular effect, oftentimes, when out of the midst of engrossing thought and deep absorption, we suddenly look up, and catch a glimpse of external objects. We seem, at such moments, to look farther and deeper into them, than by premeditated observation; it is as if they met our eyes alive, and with all their hidden meaning on the surface, but grew again inanimate and inscrutable, the instant that they become aware of our glances. This is a good description of how the novel works. Hawthorne catches his characters at the moments when they “look farther and deeper” into their surroundings, and then at the opposite moments when they feel everything grow “inanimate and inscrutable.” He is masterful at describing the psychology of guilt, the texture that despair can give to every detail. As part of this texture, he also excels at showing how the same street or statue or room can mean different things to different people at different times. Often the settings and the characters seem to seep into each other, merging and then coming apart. The story revolves around a murder and its impact on the four main characters. Two American artists – the sculptor Kenyon and the copyist Hilda – become friends with the painter Miriam and a young Italian man, Donatello. Characteristically, Hawthorne describes Miriam, the novel’s heroine, as a walking illusion: She resembled one of those images of light, which conjurors evoke and cause to shine before us, in apparent tangibility, only an arm’s length beyond our grasp; we make a step in advance, expecting to seize the illusion, but find it still precisely so far out of reach. Nearly everything about Miriam’s past is unknown, and many important questions about her remain unanswered at the novel’s end. She has taken up a new identity in Rome after some unspecified involvement in some obscure crime. Hawthorne refuses to ever clear up the mystery, and pretends at one critical point not to know what Miriam is discussing with a monk who has started to follow her around the city. Eventually, Donatello kills this monk because he thinks the man is persecuting Miriam and deserves to die. The murder – as impulsive and ambiguous as Billy Budd’s murder of Claggart – sets in motion the novel’s vision of guilt and despair passing from one person to another. Anticipating The Brothers Karamazov, Hawthorne creates a situation where everyone ultimately feels responsible for the murder, and where guilt spreads so wide and deep that nobody remains innocent. Hawthorne traces the course of this guilt as it moves through the characters. The Marble Faun uses many of the techniques we find in self-consciously experimental fiction: unexpected time shifts, deliberately misleading narration, elaborate literary references, labyrinthine ambiguities, a constant awareness of conflicting viewpoints. Yet while reading the novel I never thought of it in these terms, because Hawthorne is so focused on using his techniques to deepen our understanding of the characters. It’s essential that the history of Miriam’s earlier guilt remain unclear, for instance, because this is how she experiences the past – she’s no longer able to say where her innocence ends and her responsibility begins. Similarly, Hilda develops a bizarre sense of complicity in the monk’s murder, even though all she did was witness it from a distance. Hawthorne involves us in these changes with lavish conviction. I simply hadn’t expected the emotional and psychological fullness that the novel brings to the transformations of Miriam and Hilda and Donatello. The paradox of The Marble Faun is that it’s the most nihilistic of Hawthorne’s books at the same time as it’s the warmest and most sympathetic. The characters work their way towards each other through their worst encounters with desolation and self-doubt. As Melville recognized, Hawthorne is one of the great writers of negation. He is peerless at dramatizing darkness and loneliness and evil. Everyone in The Marble Faun becomes lost, wandering in destructive and hopeless alienation. Each character suffers from “an insatiable instinct that demands friendship, love, and intimate communication, but is forced to pine in empty forms; a hunger of the heart, which finds only shadows to feed upon.” The novel offers no easy hope, no simple consolation. Miriam never escapes her guilt. Donatello goes to prison. Hilda’s doubts about her innocence and the darkness of the world stay with her forever. Yet the final paradox is that all the characters come together in their loneliness, and are united in their separation. They still have “only shadows to feed upon,” but they know this about each other, and they do their best to see beyond their individual tragedies and to share whatever comfort they can. Hawthorne loves them for this, and loves them for salvaging their humanity even after they’ve been broken by their nightmarish personal failures, and by the wild, irrational malevolence that haunts all the story’s events. The Marble Faun is intellectually rigorous in its refusal to surrender to the temptations of sentimentality, and emotionally rigorous in its even stronger refusal to surrender to the temptations of cynicism and despair.
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1. Rise of a Tough Nerd Rick Snyder is, for the time being, Governor of Michigan. He is also one of the handful of heroes in a tale teeming with villains, Detroit Resurrected: To Bankruptcy and Back, a richly reported and important new book by Nathan Bomey, who covered America’s largest municipal bankruptcy for the Detroit Free Press. Snyder proudly calls himself “one tough nerd.” He’s an accountant by training, a businessman and venture capitalist, a rich Republican technocrat who had zero political experience and open disdain for the workings of government when he decided to run for governor in 2010. Snyder portrayed himself, according to Bomey, as a “job creator” and “the consummate outsider with the business sensibility to rehabilitate Michigan’s economy.” Rich Republican outsider with zero political experience and open disdain for government claims he has the business acumen to make [fill in the blank] great again -- sound familiar? 2. The Grand Bargain Snyder won the election in a blowout, and one of the first things he did when he got into office was to push a piece of legislation that had huge implications for the battered, teetering city of Detroit. Snyder convinced the Republican-controlled state legislature to give state-appointed emergency managers the power to usurp the authority of locally elected officials, including the power to revoke union contracts, suspend collective bargaining, control budgets, and sell assets. It was, in essence, the power to suspend democracy. Snyder also deepened already severe cuts in state aid to cities, and he signed a right-to-work bill that made it illegal in union-friendly Michigan to require anyone to join a union as a condition of employment. The other shoe dropped in March 2013, when Snyder introduced Kevyn Orr as his choice to become Detroit’s emergency manager, a likely prelude to a Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing. Orr is a self-proclaimed “yellow-dog Democrat,” in many ways Snyder’s opposite. But he is also a battle-hardened bankruptcy negotiator who had helped save Big Three automaker Chrysler by mercilessly shuttering dealerships and cutting jobs, then leveraging a government bailout. In a city that’s more than 80 percent black -- and historically distrustful of white takeover attempts -- the fact that Orr is black was no small consideration. By the time Orr hit town, Detroit was in free fall. Half a century of population decline, lost manufacturing jobs, a shrinking tax base -- coupled with corruption, mismanagement, and a harrowing crime rate -- meant the city was broke and broken, with no way to pay its mountainous debts or provide the most basic services. The city was taking in $1 billion a year in revenue -- and it owed three times that amount to pensioners. Bomey does a superb job of laying out the origins and depths of Detroit’s fiscal and political woes. He has done prodigious research into archives and court documents, interviewed all the players, and woven a tangled mass of facts into a narrative that reads like a thriller. Other heroes emerge from his narrative. One is Judge Steven Rhodes, who handled the bankruptcy case in a manner that was both tough and fair; another is federal Judge Gerald Rosen, who served as mediator in the bare-knuckled negotiations over pension cuts, debt reductions, and union contracts. Rosen’s most ingenious contribution to the case was conceiving what came to be known as the Grand Bargain -- nearly $1 billion in pledges from philanthropic organizations, private citizens, and state government that permanently shields the Detroit Institute of Art’s cherished collection from creditors. “With the debt reductions, cost cuts and projected new revenue,” Bomey writes, “the city would have $1.72 billion over 10 years to spend on services it would not have had without the bankruptcy.” He concludes: “Bankruptcy resurrected Detroit.” 3. A Swift Fall While it can be argued that Kevyn Orr’s deft handling of the emergency manager’s duties was crucial to turning Detroit around, emergency managers in another blighted, post-industrial, predominantly black Michigan city have not fared as well. The relatively sunny Detroit Resurrected is crying out for a dark sequel. It should be called Flint Contaminated, and I nominate dogged Nathan Bomey to write it. It's now been revealed that in an effort to slash costs, emergency managers in Flint made a disastrous mistake in 2014: they stopped buying water from the Detroit system and began pumping water from the Flint River, despite publicized safety concerns. Then, inadequate treatment of the river water caused lead from water lines to leach into the city’s drinking water, poisoning an unknowable number of residents. General Motors stopped using Flint city water in its factories because the water was ruining engine parts. Though Snyder, the hands-off technocrat, was alerted to the potential hazard in October 2014, nearly a year passed before he acknowledged the seriousness of the threat to public health. On March 17, Snyder and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy were called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where they were both blistered by congressmen for failing to identify and rectify the problem. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, had words that must have stung the tough-nerd governor: “If a corporate CEO did what Governor Snyder’s administration has done, he would be hauled up on criminal charges.” A week after the hearing, an independent commission appointed by Snyder last year delivered a 116-page report, suggesting that environmental racism may have played a role in officials’ slow response to the Flint crisis. The New York Times described the collective resentment of emergency managers: “The issue has long been a sore point in Michigan’s minority communities, who point to Flint and the Detroit Public Schools as evidence that the state’s imposition of emergency managers leads to bottom-line decisions, rather than overall governance.” This was an astonishingly swift fall for a man who was perceived as one of the heroes of Detroit’s bankruptcy. Though term limits will prevent Snyder from running for re-election in 2018, two petitions are now circulating in Michigan to put his recall to a statewide vote on this November’s ballot. The governor has become the poster boy for everything that can go wrong when voters elect an outsider with no political experience and open disdain for the gritty negotiation and hands-on oversight that are the essence of running a government. Detroit's resurrection notwithstanding, Snyder’s botched handling of the Flint water poisoning crisis should serve as a cautionary tale to Donald Trump and his growing army of supporters: be careful what you wish for. As events in Michigan have shown, the triumph of a political outsider does not always play out happily.
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