Anyone who has made a living sitting in a cubicle has at one time or another wondered if there is more to life than pushing the proverbial pencils. These second thoughts are central to our existence as working folk. Often, when that meeting has dragged on an hour to long or when the boss is peppering you with inane suggestions, you wonder what it would be like to do something that really matters. Absolutely American by David Lipsky is about a group of people, West Point cadets, who have decided to or been thrust into a profession that, in the eyes of the government and much of the population, really matters. Their concerns are not the cubicle but of hewing to countless regulations, eight-mile road marches in full gear, and ultimately sending people into battle one day. According to Lipsky’s introduction, he went to West Point, the military academy that trains army officers, to write an article for Rolling Stone, and he eventually found himself fascinated by the enthusiasm he found there. Lipsky ended up spending four years following the cadets. The book reads like a magazine article, and Lipsky’s writing rarely falters. He presents a West Point that is infinitely more complicated than the typical stereotype of the army. It is an Army that is at war with itself internally, as it tries to become more diverse and progressive. The book covers the years 1998 to 2002, so we get to see the transformation that September 11 causes in both the cadets and the army itself. Lipsky’s greatest feat is to make the reader realize that behind the “high and tight” haircuts, the uniform, and the stern demeanor, those who are called to the military are as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us.
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1. The first volume of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy opens as the protagonist, Count Balint Abady, is carried “peacefully and gently” in his carriage to a sumptuous ball. Having recently returned from diplomatic service to his native Transylvania and luxuriating in the memories evoked by the landscape, Balint is not concerned with making good time: Soon Balint’s old fiacre, moving slowly, was overtaken by all sorts of other vehicles, some driving so fast that he could only occasionally recognize a face or two before they too were swallowed up in the dust. Our first portrait of our hero is of him being passed by, slightly out of sync with and nostalgic for a world speeding toward oblivion. One could also read Balint’s glacial pace as a self-reflexive statement, a reminder for us to settle in for the extended pleasures of the three-part epic about to unfurl. The trilogy, published last year in two volumes by Everyman’s Library and translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, is a political novel, a melodrama, and a masterful social comedy. Written by the aristocrat, painter, and statesman Miklós Bánffy, the volumes were originally published between 1934 and 1940, just before Hungary was about to be torn apart by yet another world war. Then lying in the southeastern portion of Hungary (and now a part of Romania), Transylvania had for centuries been “a highway whose path was trodden by countless nomads who came that way and then passed on.” Its rulers maintained a fierce independent streak whether as a semi-autonomous vassal state under the Ottomans or as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which explains Abady’s sensitivity to the perception that Transylvania is “just one of a string of otherwise insignificant provinces.” (One Budapest woman asks him, “Lots of bears where you come from, aren’t there?”) It is worth noting that another great chronicle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, concerns a family with origins in a similarly peripheral territory -- Slovenia. The central love story concerns Count Abady and the “strange, independent” Adrienne Miloth, a striking beauty married to a chillingly refined monster, Pal Uzdy. (Uzdy -- insane, sadistic, and a crack shot -- wouldn’t be my first choice of a man to cuckold, but then certain Transylvanian counts are known to have eccentric tastes.) Brutalized as she is by her domineering husband, it takes the entire first volume for Adrienne to respond to Abady’s cautious advances with anything less than revulsion. The further two volumes track the lovers’ frustrated efforts to wed and give Abady a much-desired heir. The secondary protagonist, Laszlo Gyeroffy, Abady’s cousin, is an orphaned musician (he and Abady are conspicuously fatherless). As Abady muddles his way through Hungarian politics and peasant intrigues, Laszlo first becomes an elotancos, or “leading dancer and organizer” of all the balls in Budapest, a combination of bandleader, socialite, and perfect wedding guest. Letting his musical talent go to waste, he becomes known for his reckless gambling and drinking, two habits which set him on a debauched decline even as a succession of smitten and rich women attempt to save him. Bánffy portrays the nobility with Dickensian verve. One family is marked by their “aggressive belligerent noses, noses like sharp beaks; eagle beaks like Crookface, falcon beaks like Ambrus; all the birds of prey were represented, from buzzards and peregrines down to shrikes.” He likens Aunt Lizinka, an octogenarian regular on the Transylvanian party circuit with a limitless desire to spread poisonous gossip, to a “dirt volcano whose daily eruptions splattered all within reach.” And Ernest Szent-Gyorgi (Neszti), the “beau ideal of the fin de siècle man,” expresses himself almost solely through his “extra organ of communication,” a monocle: He wore the rimless eye-glass attached to an almost invisible silken thread, and when he put it up to his eye he could express an infinite variety of opinion merely by varying the gesture: comic surprise, irony, increased interest or incipient boredom, appreciation of a woman’s beauty or reprimand for a man’s presumption…His timing was inimitable and it was widely recognized that Neszti’s monocle was as much the symbol of his sway as was the scepter of kings. These and other perfectly drawn caricatures, including an Austrian lothario nicknamed Nitwit, a rich Croatian known as the Black Cockatoo, and a lisping chauvinist who resembles an “enraged hamster” when dueling with sabers, are predictably present at social gatherings to liven things up. 2. The trilogy’s love affairs, dances, and shooting parties unfold during the years leading up to WWI, when, as Hugh Thomas writes in his introduction, “European civilization committed suicide.” (The volumes, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, get their portentous titles from the Old Testament episode in which a feasting King Belshazzar receives some dire messages written on his wall.) When the novel begins in 1904, the domestic political situation is in turmoil, as indeed it will be until the outbreak of war. A coalition of doggedly nationalist opposition groups has essentially shut down the government. Enter Abady, elected as an independent candidate to the Hungarian Parliament and hailing from one of the region’s oldest aristocratic families. His diffidence and deeply felt sense of noblesse oblige causes his fellow aristocrats to feel a “latent hostility” towards him. Abady resists “the idea of being tied to a party line and obliged to follow a party whip,” which allows him to float among the various factions, gaining confidences or creating distrust along the way, all the while staying true to the European political novel tradition of the protagonist being the least interesting and most naïve character. (Abady doesn’t realize that his reelection to Parliament resulted from the bribes of his mother’s crooked estate manager, who wants nothing more than to see the young lord spend more time in Budapest so as to leave him in larcenous peace.) Abady strives towards the sublime but finds himself mired in the ridiculous: dysfunctional legislative scenes, buffoonish pranks, the collapse of his well-intentioned efforts to establish a co-operative on his mountain holdings, officious wrangling over duels that are themselves absurdly anticlimactic. He is disgusted by the crass political maneuverings he encounters in Budapest and the corrupt practices in his home province, which he sees as his duty as a nobleman to correct. His political speeches go largely ignored, and the wary Romanians in his mountainous forest district listen politely but resolve to wait the “strange lord” out until he returns to his Denestornya estate or Budapest. There’s an extraordinary episode in which Abady tries to intervene on behalf of a group of Romanian peasants under the thumb of an unscrupulous moneylender. Like most of his attempts to intervene, he fails, and the peasants take it upon themselves to breach the offender’s citadel and mete out an older, and brutal, form of justice. Abady reads about the attack from the serene Italian village of Portofino, where “it was hard to believe in the bitter winter up in the mountains, the all-enveloping snow, silent men striding forth in a blizzard, in cruel murder and mysterious comings and goings in the all-embracing darkness.” Despite Abady’s sporadic headlong rushes into local and national politics, he generally lacks the sustaining energy to be more than a spectator. And spectate he does. If it’s impolite to stare, then he and his countrymen are the rudest people on earth. One Hungarian woman compares Transylvanians to “birds of prey, hawks, always gazing into the far distance, to the horizon, and never noticing what lies at their feet, what is close at hand.” Abady constantly proves her right, prone as he is to “staring into the face of destiny, the inexorable destiny that would in time overwhelm his beloved country.” The trilogy ends as Abady, traveling to a front line regimen at the outbreak of the First World War, looks back on his beloved land from up high: All his life lay before him, his whole past, everything...a deep bitterness came over him as he stood there alone, high above the world he had known and which was now doomed to perish...The whole world beyond the horizon seemed to be in flames.” What he has been dreading has finally come into view. 3. This might not be the thing one wants to hear before embarking on a 1,500 page quest, but the trilogy is marked by a narrative desultoriness that applies to both its human and political dramas. The novels are in a some ways about widespread distraction and inaction in the face of an impending catastrophe. The second installment, for example, concludes with the following recapitulation: “And so ended an era in which nothing whatever had been achieved.” Comedy plays a large part in this narrative chronicle of distraction; indeed, the trilogy is a work of social comedy about the perils of the comic. Bánffy has a conflicting relationship with comedy. He clearly admires the “true Transylvanian sense of the absurd” most memorably displayed during a scene in which a crusading Frenchman visits Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca) to establish a Transylvanian Branch of his Anti-Dueling League. One of the hosts, an ex-officer known for his love of dueling, has no idea what their honorary guest is promoting and promptly becomes enraged upon hearing his favorite pastime derided as “pure barbarism.” The absurdity continues when a dispute breaks out that can only be settled with, yes, a duel, which is carried out in the same hall at which the anti-dueling event took place. One of the combatants, nose broken and head bandaged, gamely appears at the train station to see off the Frenchman, who is told that the poor man fell down the stairs. “What bad luck, Highness, what bad luck!” These and other sketches of Transylvanians gone wild demonstrate a benign ridiculousness, but Bánffy also sees the corrosive effects of comedy. (Tellingly, one of the novel’s villains, Pal Uzdy, occasionally bursts out in strange, meaningless laughter.) When a newly-appointed Prefect is pelted with eggs in Parliament, Abady laughs along with the others before becoming overcome with sadness: “He thought only of the fact that an innocent man had been humiliated, and that it was callous and distasteful that everyone should think the whole affair a tremendous joke and nothing more.” His Hungarian colleagues think most everything is a tremendous joke, a quality directly related to their failure to take the gathering international storm seriously: The sad truth was that all of them found anything that did not concern their own country fit only for mockery and laughter. To them such matters were as remote from reality as if they had been happening on Mars; and therefore fit only for schoolboy puns and witty riposte. Abady mistrusts his countrymen’s love of the comic as a form of irresponsibility. Late in the novel, he enjoys himself when his friends stage a drunken mock-trial of a bottle of brandy for the liquor’s numerous crimes, but senses that such silliness is indicative of a larger political folly and dangerous myopia. And thus, towards the end of the novel, Bánffy delivers a terse judgment as unequivocal as the one written on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast: “Everyone was guilty, all the upper strata of Hungarian society.”
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Building Stories, by the comics artist Chris Ware, comes in a large, flat box, roughly the size and shape of the boxes that contained those boardgames you used to play as a child, and which children everywhere have presumably now abandoned for digital diversions. I ordered it online, and because I wasn’t home when it arrived (and because the thing was never going to fit into my postbox) I had to put aside some time later that week to pick it up from a delivery depot about a mile and a half from where I live. When I got there, I rang a little bell at an unmanned hatch. A guy eventually appeared and asked for my name and address, then went away and came back with this large package, which I then signed for, took out to my car, lay across the back seat, and drove home. I say all of this by way of establishing that this is a sizable and intractably physical object, and that I had to endure some (admittedly minor) inconveniences to get to where I could sit down and spend time with it. My point, I suppose, is that having to go a little out of your way might actually be the most appropriate way of arriving at Building Stories, a work of art whose quietly monolithic presence lies well beyond the central marketplace of contemporary literary culture. I call it a work of art, by the way, not in order to rhetorically elevate it, but rather to avoid having to call it a “book,” which is more or less exactly what it isn’t. Firstly, it’s a great big box, and then, once you’ve opened that, it’s a whole paper treasury of beautiful odds and ends – a series of small booklets and pamphlets, a couple of variously sized hardbound volumes, a massive and aggressively cumbersome broadsheet, a series of folded panels that opens out into a tetraptych – all of which is bound together by a clear plastic band. These things have to be removed and laid out, as though they were the contents of an aesthetic care-package, and they have to be appreciated before they can be read. So the first thing about Building Stories, the initial way in which it asserts itself, is that it feels like opening an unexpected gift. But once you stop merely looking at it and begin reading it, the delight and sheer fun of its form – of the gift’s presentation – is revealed as a beautiful irony. Because although the content of the box is bright and surprising, full of remarkable nested pleasures, the content of the art itself (the content, as it were, of the box’s content) is something very different: full-color infographics of stoically-borne despair, sadness, and boredom. Building Stories is, essentially, a sprawling assemblage of cartoons about the inhabitants of a single building in Chicago. On the ground floor is the elderly landlady, and above her lives a youngish woman and her sullen, undermining husband, who once played guitar in a rock band, but who now works night shifts as a security guard. For the most part, though, Ware focuses on the life of an unnamed woman with one leg amputated at the knee who lives on the third floor. There seems to be no particular order in which the stories should be read – no one way in which the parts unite to form a whole – and so you glimpse this life at various points and at the various degrees of its loneliness. You pick up one booklet and she is in her twenties, living alone in her apartment with her cat, working as a florist; you pick up another and she is married to an architect (who looks very much like Chris Ware) and living in the suburbs with a young daughter; in another, she is just out of art school, working as an au pair with a wealthy couple and their son. And yet despite this haphazardness, whereby the reader pieces this fractured graphic narrative together in whatever way comes to hand, there is always a forceful sense of the steady passage of time. We see the woman’s face change, her sadness seeming to settle into its structure; and, in Ware’s many unclothed depictions of her, we see the inevitable slump and spread of her body, her shoulders hunched under a private history of tolerable defeats. The only part of her that doesn’t grow old, that isn’t sliding along an illustrated continuum of decay, is the part that is already dead – her prosthetic left leg. In one of the most emotionally affecting panels, she stands in pear-shaped nakedness by the door of her bedroom, her clothes bunched on the floor around her. Her husband lies stretched out on their bed, also naked, his long legs crossed at the ankle, his slackly oblivious cock reclining away from her across his right thigh, his chest and face illuminated by the unreal glow of the iPad he is holding in his hands. The expression on her face is one of helpless misery, like a child prematurely exposed to adult disillusionments. It’s heartbreaking to look at everything that Ware somehow manages to imply in the simple lines of her face: her doubts about her husband’s desire for her and her own desire for him, her sudden dismay about the shape of her life, and of the body with which she is moving through it. It’s precisely the ordinariness of all this that is surprising; she is, in other words, not a nude, but – far more beautifully and movingly – a naked woman. The passing of time, with its slow devastation of bodies and lives, is a major dimension of Building Stories. One of the comics focuses on the building’s elderly landlady; its entire front page is given over to a wordless scene in which she snoozes in her armchair by the television, sitting out what little time she has left, as a maid hoovers around her. Ware zooms in repeatedly on her left hand, a seized arthritic claw with its bulbous knuckles, resting on the arm of the chair. At one point a fly lands on the back of her hand without her noticing; it’s only when it moves to her face that she brushes it away, like a thought about the approach of death. Inside the comic, she thinks about the uneventful life she led, working as a shop assistant, trapped at home caring for a bedridden mother. A central double-page spread opens out into a diagram of the building’s stairwells, and as we move downward, reading from left to right, the process of aging is illustrated. First she is a little girl playing on the stairs, then a woman mopping it, then finally a frail and crotchety old lady rebuking her maid as she cleans the floor. Ware has a way of making the most banal visual details unaccountably touching; in particular, I found the sight of the old lady’s hands removing the plastic wrap from a pre-prepared lunch plate (triangular sandwich, half a banana, two apple slices) desperately sad. Again, it’s the ordinariness of the image that is affecting. Like Philip Larkin, or the Joyce of Dubliners – a book with which Building Stories has a great deal in common – Ware has an extraordinary instinct for the empathic illumination of banality. He makes plain – beautifully and unsentimentally plain – the fact that nothing is more ordinary than to be lonely and despairing and dying. Perhaps this sounds depressing. It isn’t. Only bad art is depressing; good art, no matter what its subject, is exhilarating. Building Stories takes everyday sadness and makes something very beautiful of it, something powerfully human and true. That is a rare gift, and I'm very thankful to have received it.
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When he became the New York Times’s chief film critic in 2004, A.O. Scott got one of the world’s great jobs at what was possibly the worst historical moment to have been so anointed. As a credentialed critic of the old, ex cathedra school, Scott is deeply out of step with his times. We live in an age in which opinion has been radically democratized by digital publishing, which means the professional has to shout louder than ever to be heard, a problem for which the Times’s enviable platform is only a partial solution. Institutional authority of all kinds has been on the run for almost 50 years in America, so Scott’s Harvard degree, his polished prose, and his intimidating cultural range -- in an imaginary dinner a deux, this writer does not make it through the appetizer course with him without confronting panicked feelings of inadequacy -- are not just unavailing but likely to create intractable resentment in many of his readers. And because we have become a society hungry to consume but paralytically reluctant to judge, one of the basic motives of the critic, to create taxonomies of value, has become suspect. This, then, is a rather defensive and sometimes irritable book, an act of muffled aggression by a man besieged and yet conscious of occupying a privileged position in the world. The immediate sources of Scott’s anxiety are three: (1) a Twitter attack by Samuel L. Jackson after Scott panned The Avengers; (2) a podcast in which late Times media critic David Carr mocked Scott’s pretentions to authority, to Scott’s obvious irritation; and (3) Scott Rudin’s full-page ad in the Times for Inside Llewyn Davis, consisting solely of a slightly edited version of a message Scott posted, apparently in a condition of dubious sobriety, on his Twitter account. That new media played a role in each of these events is perhaps not coincidental; every writer not grinding out listicles feels at least some ambivalence about digital culture, if only because it threatens to drive the market value of his output to zero. Better Living Through Criticism is a defense of the critic’s work, but it is also, at times, a history of taste, a reflection on digital culture, a spectacle of explication, and above all, a defense of the unenviable condition, in our youth-obsessed society, of being middle-aged -- that is, of having an aesthetic history. The book’s range of discussion sometimes feels like an abundance and at other times like a cheat, as though Scott failed in some measure to decide what book, exactly, he wanted to write -- a restiveness perhaps reflected in its larkish, off-putting title. Scott regards the impact of the Internet on criticism as largely negative, both because the Internet threatens the livelihood of professional critics ("Making a living...can no longer be taken for granted") and because the tendency of digital culture is to erode the distinctions upon which criticism rests ("The relationship between market value and other, less tangible and sometimes antithetical values -- of knowledge, beauty, originality, substance -- seems to be in danger of falling apart, and as a result the basic distinction between professional and amateur threatens to collapse as well."). Scott’s discussion is nuanced and fair, but still I think his account is too pessimistic. Some web-only publications already have supported the careers of excellent critics: Laura Miller of Salon and Slate; Kiese Laymon of Gawker and Guernica and his own blog, Cold Drank; the entire editorial enterprise of the Los Angeles Review of Books. And traditional media have greatly expanded their range through their websites. Tim Parks, for example, has produced a dazzling series of critical essays at NYRBlog, work that is of outstanding intellectual quality but that might not fit comfortably in the Review's print edition. The digital format need not be an impediment to seriousness; the medium is not necessarily the message. I do not take a Pollyanna, “let a thousand flowers bloom” view of these matters; the Internet has had a devastating effect on newspapers, for example, a form of journalism that I am old enough to remember. But its impact on criticism, I suspect, will be mixed. In any event, it is almost certainly too soon to tell. I also think Scott places too much emphasis on the pecuniary aspect of professionalism in criticism, at the expense of other, more important values. For a critic to make a middle-class living from her pen alone is no doubt gratifying, and a benefit to her dependents, but I do not think that it is crucial to the overall enterprise. James Wood and Nancy Franklin make a living as critics, as did Edmund Wilson in his day, but Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler lived off their faculty salaries, without any appreciable loss of vitality. If there is not as much good criticism coming out of the academy as one would like, we can blame Continental theory rather than declining pay. Professionalism is made of sterner stuff, one hopes: a commitment to a certain standard of discourse; thorough knowledge of one's subject; the cultivation of prose style. As a film critic, Scott confronts a medium that is sometimes art but always business. Since movies are very expensive to make, they must be consumer products, conceived, marketed, and exploited as such. A good commercial movie is the product of immense professional skill by the director, the editor, and others, work that is adjacent to art but is not quite art, that lacks a crucial dimension of motivation or purpose. Outstanding craft in the service of meretricious ends creates a complicated problem for the serious-minded critic. We know where Scott stands on this: for him, a critic is someone who stands athwart the publicity steamroller that is The Avengers saying "Stop." Indeed, one of our new duties in an age of relentless, all-pervading, and ever-more-sophisticated marketing is to develop strategies of resistance. This is not exactly the heroic endeavor that Iwo Jima was for our grandparents, but it is what we have available, and good critics give us the hermeneutic tools, the catapults and Molotov cocktails of that resistance. The case Scott makes in Better Living for the critic as counterweight to advertising and publicity is one of the strongest aspects of the book, a reminder of what rushes to fill the void when we lapse into critical lethargy. Scott casts the critic in heroic rather than prosaic terms, as a maker in his own right rather than an appreciator, and beholden finally only to his own taste. His desire to claim for criticism the respect and prestige accorded to artists, without which a critic is merely a kind of particularly unenterprising journalist, is understandable. But I do not think the critical enterprise is robbed of luster by acknowledging that the critic has duties to those responsible for the work under review that might be in tension with his own creative impulses, duties of accuracy and fairness, and more complexly, of good faith. Scott would not gainsay these duties for a moment, I am sure. But about the resolution of these competing drives -- the most basic of which might lie in the desire any critic sometimes feels to turn the occasion of the review toward his own aesthetic or political concerns rather than those of the director or author -- he has chosen to say very little here. That is a shame, because Scott as much as any critic does justice to all constituencies. Scott rarely refers directly to his own work in Better Living, a curious act of self-effacement for which, in my view, the payoff is inadequate. There are any number of interesting practical problems, upon which Scott is almost uniquely qualified to declaim, that go unaddressed. How, for example, does a newspaper critic confronted with writing multiple pieces per week on deadline avoid dullness, either of perception or of prose style? [T]he doling out of consumer advice inevitably drags the act of discrimination into the swamp of relativism. The good enough -- for this week’s paycheck or tomorrow’s edition -- becomes the enemy of the best, and the chances of discerning and communicating the lasting merit of a given book crumble under a mass of discourse. Scott himself seems to have conquered this problem, maintaining a consistently high level of thought and expression while being extraordinarily prolific. He has brought the 2,000-word essay-review nearly to the point of perfection; only a few critics have ever done it so well, and none to my knowledge that had to do it three times a week. He also regularly contributes long think pieces on film, books, and other matters cultural. But how? I am aware here of committing a basic sin of reviewing, which is to ask for some wholly different book than the one the author chose to write. In the course of Scott's career, which I have followed with interest, I have developed expectations about what he might do at book length, expectations that I am now holding against him. That is not entirely fair (though it is a risk attendant to being the “A” student that Scott perennially has been). For myself alone, then, Better Living is to some extent a story of missed opportunities. Part of the interest, but also part of the difficulty, of Better Living is that Scott never quite settles into a consistent tone. He seems to feel that his subject is one that cannot be attacked directly, so he tries a variety of strategies, careful exegesis combined with personal observation and witty dialogues. Given that he is a highbrow (a former PhD candidate in literature) in a middlebrow medium (newspapers) writing about a creative form (the movies) that frequently has the lowest of aspirations, a mix of registers in his prose is perhaps to be expected. But one also senses some basic, unresolved ambivalence, a tension created by the confrontation between a scholarly temperament and a world of hot takes -- indeed, that tension is, in a sense, the motive for the book. The author of Better Living seems like a man torn between a personal culture that says sublimate, sublimate, sublimate and a national culture that rewards acting out. What to do with all that ego? Scott is a fine and scrupulous writer of prose. His exegetical skills are formidable. His culture is broad. He can give you a breezy account of European art history across four centuries; he can also tell you how the movie business works right now. He effortlessly parses T.S. Eliot and Immanuel Kant and Ratatouille. At times, though, one feels the conflict between the Scott who wants to make a grand gesture of self-assertion and the one who, after Eliot, seeks in art an escape from personality. Better Living wants to be a defense of traditional critical values, but tradition, as Scott well knows, has a rather bad name these days, and he is too canny, too much the common room politician, to get caught defending the arrière-garde. I would have been more gratified by a fuller-throated defense of the elitist view, not because that is the only defensible position, but because I would have felt that I was hearing what the most inward A.O. Scott truly believes. Instead one feels that a Prufrockian scrim of prudence and deference and good manners has been inserted between the writer and his audience. This is not to say that Scott should seek a more informal or democratic style; indeed, the casual, demotic voice to which he occasionally succumbs seems to me his least successful. And Scott is not, after all, Prufrock; he does dare, several times a week, often to great effect. But I would like to see him dare even more greatly. The great works of cultural criticism that he admires -- White Collar; The Culture of Narcissism; On Native Grounds; Love and Death in the American Novel -- are all touched by grandiosity. Scott has the resources to achieve something at that level. But he might have to risk a confrontation with his Times audience to do it.
Smith charts the wake left by the words. She seems most interested in talk: a genre without form or discipline, that can match the mess of grief. Through sentences slung and stuttered, forced to double back and revise, people give and receive solace.