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.
“Don’t read this book if you are depressed. Yikes.”–Amazon.com reader review of Paint It BlackJanet Fitch has a new book out, Paint It Black, and so that this dark etching might be properly framed, and hopefully some light then cast in its direction, some background information will prove useful. Fitch’s first book, White Oleander, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club shortly after it was published in 1999 (a movie followed in 2002.) This after Fitch had labored in relative obscurity for years in her home town, Los Angeles.Oprah Winfrey, TV’s well-read matriarch-cum-regent, has anointed more than a few deserving authors over the years.Jonathan Franzen is a member of some standing, though he has openly discussed the stigma of being a Book Club boy or girl. Oprah has moved mountains by moving Americans to read more, more Faulkner, more Garcia Marquez, more Carol Oates, Steinbeck, and – Sydney Poitier? In any case, Oprah has also moved a few books for hucksters like James Frey, a few more for the good people at, oh, Amazon.com. A writer would be right to wonder about the implications of being in The Club, because they are probably not all as easy to recognize and identify as the sudden affirmative media attention – and the accompanying thunderclap of fall-off-your-chair sales figures. For instance, what if the follow-up to your breakout book just isn’t very good? Franzen has had less to say on that subject.Without discernible irony, Janet Fitch once professed to maintain a shrine to Oprah in her home, something besides a television. And why should she not? After all, Oprah’s induction of White Oleander into The Club made Janet Fitch an overnight success, validating years of work. The question is, what reader has a shrine to Janet Fitch, whether the devout Oprah acolyte, or, like me, just someone who picked up White Oleander at the sincere urging of a non-televised friend? And how many of the Fitch faithful will keep the candles burning for her now that Paint It Black is out?It is hard to imagine that, with Paint It Black, support from the Oprah camp – surely the rock on which Fitch’s wing of her publishing house, Little, Brown, rests – will not to some degree erode. More pointedly, Paint It Black will confound the serious reader engaged in a comparison of the book to its predecessor. It’s not just that Paint It Black is a weak sophomore effort. It’s that what preceded it was of such quality, and soared to such great heights.White Oleander does run before some powerful winds. It is written with a soulful savagery, the language never failing to try to capture both the broadest sweep of earthly beauty and the innermost essence of personal pain. The narrator, Astrid Magnussen, is fourteen when she begins her journey down a twisted chain of ever more fantastic and frightening L.A.-area foster homes. Astrid’s mother, Ingrid, a noted poet, is sent to prison for poisoning a man who was her lover. Yet even in prison, where her notoriety and artistic standing seem only to grow, Ingrid Magnussen maintains a profound, almost malevolent influence over Astrid’s life. Central to the book’s success is Fitch’s inspired evocation of the psychological connection between this mother and daughter, in all its complex, contradictory, and adversarial intensity. So, White Oleander not only floats, it slices over water into which other books sink.Of course, White Oleander has its little leaks, and its leaks hint at some of the problems that sink its successor. It is too long – too much ballast, as it were, in the form of at times achingly florid, fulsome prose. In this passage, Astrid’s voice rings with a concise clarity: “Niki and Yvonne had pierced my ears one day when they were bored. I let them do it. It pleased them to shape me. I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.” But it keeps going, so on the same page: “I had been in foster care almost six years now, I had starved, wept, begged, my body was a battlefield, my spirit scarred and cratered as a city under siege.” Fitch trips herself up when she indulges in such passages, running on (literally) with these broadest of brushstrokes. Then, maybe an author deserves to be spared the criticism of reaching a bit too far if she proves, as Janet Fitch has with White Oleander, that she is capable of rendering a nuanced beauty, and a dignity, out of the often pitiable human condition.Enter Josie Tyrell, protagonist of Paint It Black. She is a humble Bakersfield bean sprout transplanted in the big, bad city. Josie’s Harvard rich kid-turned-artist boyfriend, Michael, has a problem: he has just killed himself. Now Josie must struggle to find out who he really was. It’s tough. Along the way, Josie forms an unlikely bond with Michael’s overbearing, patrician mother, while occasionally navigating her way through the cemetery at Griffith Park, and the wilds of the 1980 L.A. punk scene, as it were, as it was, as it may have been. The book opens with Josie observing how an artist friend of hers, whom she poses for, becomes misty-eyed while listening to a John Lennon album in his studio, Lennon having just been killed. Josie’s take: “people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up.” This is her disposition before she learns of the death of the love of her own life, but in any case, we’re off.The trade winds that propelled White Oleander to welcoming shores have somehow conflated into a perfect storm of literary peril, and Paint It Black is a balky boat. Like that of the former, the tone of the latter is heavy, yet somehow hollow, so that a passage such as the following: “How right that the body changed over time, becoming a gallery of scars, a canvas of experience, a testament to life and one’s capacity to endure it,” which so closely echoes the passages from W.O. cited above, here seems so painfully self-conscious, more of a glance behind the curtain than into the heart of the character on the stage. Fitch relies so heavily on this sort of weight-of-the-world internal monologue; it quickly becomes redundant, like slapping a corpse. Part of the comparative problem is the use of third person in Paint It Black, where White Oleander was told in the voice of Astrid Magnussen, who is, after all, a teenager, not to mention an extraordinarily compelling character. Josie Tyrell, not so much, though Fitch seems literally to want to crawl inside her skin, and maybe should have. It’s tempting to judge third person narration more of a challenge because, unlike first person where the story is one big stream of monologue, the protagonist’s voice does not automatically set the tone. To borrow a hackneyed writer’s workshop phrase, the omniscient narrator must rely more on show than tell.Fitch still shows a lot, a lot of Los Angeles, between Josie’s two spheres, the jaded punk-rock bohemia, slowly choking on its own vomit; and the coldly cultured upper-crust, slowly, well, choking on its own vomit. There’s vomit and excrement in every corner of this town. Witness this exchange between Josie and an exiled German punk rock hellion, Lola Lola:”Americans insist on the superior shit, consuming acres of bran cereal, the better to have big attractive ones. Did you know that all the best perfume has a little bit of shit in it?”Josie shook her head. A little turd floating in the Chanel No. 5.Still with us? Okay then; moving on.Fitch does know L.A. and, like a Joan Didion or a Mike Davis with a novelist’s elan, she reaches yet again for something lofty: a description of the cultural anthropology of Los Angeles itself. White Oleander accomplished this feat so thoroughly that the book could be required reading in such a course of study. But in Paint It Black, the vision, the spheres, never coalesce into something true, or even plausible. Paint It Black is never quite dull, though, and therein lies perhaps the best evidence that the soulful savagery Fitch conjured in White Oleander still burns.At bottom, what awaits people who read and enjoyed White Oleander when they pick up Paint It Black is perhaps just a letdown. This idea has something to do with the reason why White Oleander was chosen by Oprah for The Club, now 55 books strong, or thereabouts. The letdown has to do with confronting a character, a young female protagonist, Josie Tyrell, who, though outwardly similar in some ways to Astrid Magnussen, is in fact fundamentally her opposite. There may come a moment when the reader realizes that Josie Tyrell is categorically unstable, the anti-Astrid. The book as farce is an interesting way to read it. And maybe, just maybe, this is where Fitch jumps the mic on what was almost certain to be labeled an Oprah letdown, a sophomore slump, or what have you, this second novel of hers. Perhaps, shrine notwithstanding, Fitch was discerning when it came to confronting the curse of The Club, and set out to create the anti-Oleander, something cunningly irredeemable. Something for critics to crow about – or not, as the unfortunate case may be. And something for Oprah to ignore.These two books are black and white, and there are exhausted homunculi out there for whom they may someday be read all over.
Leave it to the astrologers to forecast unusual cosmological events for the coming months. What’s certain is that under the sign of Libra, the reading public will be gifted that rarest literary treasure, a book of such dazzling breadth and scope that it defies any label short of masterpiece.
Eleanor Catton’s skill was evident in her deft debut, The Rehearsal. The Rehearsal opened a disturbing window onto manipulative adults and adolescents snaking around each other in a music school. In addition to an uncomfortable set of relationships, the disturbance was fueled by lack of names, major characters, and place.
Now comes Catton’s The Luminaries, firmly rooted in both the history of Catton’s native New Zealand and in the literature of the Victorian era. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Catton lives in Auckland. If The Rehearsal was an edgy and inventive debut, The Luminaries is a virtuoso performance. Published at the tender age of twenty-eight, Catton’s second novel tips its hat to Moby Dick’s singular language and Leviathan obsession; Charles Dickens’s sprawling, baggy investigations of ordinary, flawed humanity; George Eliott’s timeless moral inquiries; and the twentieth century romances of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. The Luminaries is resplendent: a twenty first century Victorian novel that couldn’t be more original.
The novel drops us into the Otago region of New Zealand’s South Island, where a nineteenth century gold rush succeeded California’s by about twenty years. In 1866, twelve men congregate in the smoking room of Hokitika’s Crown Hotel, giving “the impression of a party accidentally met.” The party includes a collection of Chinese, Maori, Jewish, French, and local characters, from a banker to a chaplain to an opium dealer to a whoremonger. “Everyone’s from somewhere else,” the shipping agent comments. It transpires that they all share a common interest in Anna Wetherell, “the whore,” and in recapturing a fortune in gold discovered and then lost in the cabin of a recently deceased (murdered?) man.
Enter the thirteenth man, Walter Moody, just off the boat from England. In a literary sleight of hand, Moody plays audience for the story’s setup (more on that to come) and subsequently participates in the unfolding plot.
The organizing principle for The Luminaries is the Zodiac. “Luminaries” is astrology speak for the brightest and most important objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. Put simplistically, the greater and lesser light of the sun and moon represent the twin poles of man and woman and their array of accompanying characteristics. Each of the many characters is assigned an astrological identity that cycles through the novel. The major sections of the book begin with an illustrated chart of the Zodiac, including symbols and positioning. In an interpretive hint in the prologue, we are told that the novel takes place during a time of precession, when “the motion of the vernal equinox has come to shift.” The author dares us to conjecture that time in this novel is “Piscean in its quality…an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things.” It would be reasonable to focus a review of The Luminaries exclusively on these five Piscean themes; they would surely provide enough material for a Ph.D. dissertation.
In common with any respectable Victorian, Catton doesn’t hesitate to interrupt herself with explication and expansive moral judgments. Of Walter Moody she writes, “like most excessively beautiful persons, he had studied his own reflection minutely and, in a way, knew himself from the outside best.” Or, the banker, who “spoke with the controlled alarm of a bureaucrat who is requested to explain some mundane feature of the bureaucracy of which he is a functioning part: controlled, because an official is always comforted by proof of his own expertise, and alarmed, because the necessity for explanation seemed, in some obscure way, to undermine the system which had afforded him that expertise in the first place.”
Catton waxes lyrical in her physical descriptions. Here’s Anna Wetherell, the whore: “Her complexion was translucent, even blue, and tended to a deep purple beneath her eyes — as if she had been painted in watercolor, on a paper that was not stiff enough to hold the moisture, so the colors ran…Her nose was narrow, even geometric: a sculptor might render it in four strokes, with one slice on either side, one down the bridge, and one tuck beneath.”
But the genius of The Luminaries resides in its structure. The novel generates an unusual and unique rhythm. The setup occurs over a sprawling three-hundred-sixty pages. Technically it’s closer to three-hundred-forty; the remaining twenty consolidate and summarize the previous book-length introduction. By this point, the reader is luxuriating in a state of agreeable confusion, curious and eager to read on. The twenty pages of summary are useful, but they could never substitute for such a grand exposition.
Chapter titles reference the Zodiac and are followed by short, italicized summations. For example, “In which the chemist goes in search of opium; we meet Anna Wetherell at last; Pritchard becomes inpatient; and two shots are fired.” Homage, perhaps, to Oliver Twist and its ilk. As secrets are revealed and contradictions unmasked, the book picks up speed with shorter chapters, more truncated sections, and longer and longer “in which” introductions that finally substitute for text and plot. Part One may be the length of most novels, but Part Twelve takes a mere two pages. No doubt astrological numerology would offer further insight into how those twelve parts relate to the twelve characters seated in the Crown Hotel’s smoking room at the outset, who in turn reflect the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
The novel’s pace accelerates with snowballing revelations of hypocrisy, exploitation, mendacity, revenge, and cruelty; all sprinkled with a healthy dose of coincidence. Even the cleverest literary sleuth may fail to solve the whole puzzle until the end. This is the stuff of life in all its unpredictability: mistaken assumptions; arrogant presumption; substance over surface; truth and consequences; and, ultimately, good versus evil.
Steeped in history, The Luminaries feels completely fresh. Contemporary American writers increasingly decline the sweeping range and flow of the past tense. The resulting language compacts into ever-shrinking pages, serving up clipped sentences written in present tense. By contrast, The Luminaries takes its leisurely time roaming the past tense, developing an intricate and complex plot.
Catton’s nineteenth century style feels brand new.
From whence has Catton sprung? Unfortunately, precious few New Zealand writers reach American shores. Perhaps Katherine Mansfield is best known to U.S. readers, along with Janet Frame, whose eerie, haunting novels unfurl a psychologically troubled personal history. Catton’s contemporary, Fiona Farrell, recently set a novel in Victorian times: Mr. Allbones’ Ferrets: An Historical Pastoral Satirical Scientifical Romance, with Mustelids. In Mr. Allbones, Farrell explores the burgeoning scientific understanding of evolution in the time of Charles Darwin, while Kiwi writer Emily Perkins uses nature differently in The Forrests — to examine a contemporary family in dissolution.
But Catton’s talent is too capacious to be confined to place. Deeply entrenched in New Zealand’s South Island, The Luminaries makes clear that this author commands the world at her fingertips. Her literary ancestry derives less from her homeland and more from the British and American giants of the nineteenth century. Catton deserves their company. Nodding to Melville, she’s nailed the tormented sea captain and the revenge obsessed “Chinaman.” With so many characters taking on false identities and trying to out-cheat each other in New Zealand’s gold rush, Catton, too, has mined the seamy underside of greed and poverty so beloved by Dickens. Like George Eliot, Catton looks behind the stereotype of the whore and the opium dealer and forces us to question where the real morality lies. By the novel’s end, every character’s initial presentation has been destabilized. Reader, Catton instructs, don’t judge a book by its cover.
Catton deploys daunting technique, yes. She’s spun a solar system into orbit — the planets, the stars, and the sun and the moon. But more importantly, she’s persuaded readers to invest emotionally in each foibled, flawed, lying character right through to page eight-hundred-thirty. The love story is simply an added pleasure.
All that, and Eleanor Catton is still on the nearside of thirty. Small wonder that The Luminaries has been nominated for the Booker Prize. No matter the outcome, the literary firmament has birthed a new star.
Eulogies are our gifts to the dead. The late James Alan McPherson wrote one such eulogy for his student at the University of Virginia, Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake was an eccentric West Virginian, a “constitutional nonconformist.” A “lonely and melancholy man” who loved to drink and owned guns “of every possible kind,” he felt most at home outdoors. He wanted an independent study with McPherson and likely got it through sheer force of will and personality: “In an environment reeking with condescension, he was inviting me to abandon my very small area of protection.”
McPherson’s eulogy is the foreword for The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, the only book from the writer, posthumously published. Pancake’s suicide at 26 still feels like a shock to McPherson, whose eulogy is calm, not breathless; pensive, not certain. “Whatever the cause of his desperation,” McPherson writes, “he could not express it from within the persona he had created…How does one explain the contents of a secret room to people who, though physically close, still remain strangers?”
The differences between elegies and eulogies have often struck me as being both contextual and formal; and, ultimately, those differences are incidental. Forget that an elegy is supposed to be a lament and that a eulogy is supposed to contain praise; McPherson’s eulogy transcends the genre. Some of that might be owed to McPherson’s own literary genius; the rest we might ascribe to a careful teacher speaking about his student. His eulogy feels honest; it cuts through Pancake’s literary legend.
Yet many eulogies are not the result of mentorships, friendships, or family. They are the product of intimations of closeness. The recent deaths of David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, Prince, and other well-known figures have resulted in a multitude of remembrances and memorials. Grief pulls us even closer to the writers, performers, and other celebrities that we adore but don’t personally know.
In their new book Dead People, Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Golberg complicate our understanding of the public action of eulogy. They offer eulogies for a unique cast, including Chinua Achebe, Osama bin Laden, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Cobain. Although the origin of the word “eulogy” is “to speak well,” Golberg and Meis interrogate that idea, and instead see how the “death of a fellow human being can be the opportunity to enter into that person’s life.” The traditional Aristotelian method of eulogy is to step back and consider someone’s life from a distance. Instead, the authors of Dead People dig in: “We’ve chosen to wear our bias on our sleeve. We’ve chosen to take these lives personally.”
Golberg and Meis pen alternating eulogies, some of which were published previously as standalone essays. The result is a book that is very much an anthology. Dead People is not a single narrative, thesis-driven work of non-fiction. In fact, the writers’ introduction to the work is their only action of framing, which results in the book having many different entry points. You don’t need to read Dead People front to back; its value lies within its stylish and substantive reconsideration of an ancient form.
A few entries can example how Meis and Golberg use eulogies as part prose-poems, part historical reconsiderations, and part philosophical treatises. The result is an intellectually entertaining and flexible book. Meis first considers the life of Christopher Hitchens, and consistent with his plan for the book, interrogates the man for his unflinching support of the Iraq war: “Hitch could never say it. There was something greater at stake for him. There was something that he valued more deeply, in this case, than he valued the truth.” It’s a clever way to craft a portraiture of Hitchens, as a man whose morality could exist on some other plane.
Unlike many subjects in the book, Meis actually knew Hitchens — they both wrote for Harper’s — and he examines Hitchens’s legendary atheism. Hitchens, he thinks, did not
…have the courage to confront the works of Simone Weil, and to read them with honesty and openness and a feeling for the greatness that is contained within her words. A person could read Simone Weil for a lifetime and never become a believer. But no honest person can read Simone Weil, truly read her, and maintain the position that religious belief is a phenomenon that can be dealt with solely in the mode of contempt. Christopher Hitchens was perfectly aware of this fact, which is why he never allowed himself genuinely to read the works of Simone Weil or genuinely to contemplate the paintings of Caravaggio or genuinely to recite the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to pick a few random examples of greatness on this earth that, troublingly, cannot be disentangled from religion.
It’s a fantastic reading of the stubborn Hitchens, who “was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost. This is what made him great.”
Meis’s eulogy for Osama bin Laden is equally thought-provoking. “The scariest thing about Osama bin Laden,” Meis thinks, “was his quietness and his calm.” That quietude became a culture, a cult: “The way the 9/11 attackers spent their lives as everyday members of American society in the months leading up to that day, the way they boarded the planes as normal men, the way they flew the planes deliberately into those towers — they are an outgrowth of the calm, detached violence that bin Laden personified.”
We find nothing to praise in a criminal like bin Laden, and yet Meis knows sustained dissection of the terrorist leader has become rote. Much more difficult is what happens we turn the lens of the eulogy on the audience, as when he considers the more public execution of Saddam Hussein in contrast to bin Laden’s burial at sea: “What does it do to one human being to celebrate the killing of another human being, whatever the circumstances? What happens inside you, how does it make you feel? Is that something you want to feel? Is it a way you want to be?”
I admit that those questions unsettled me, and that was perhaps the first moment I realized that Dead People is a special book. It should be noted here that Meis is a Catholic convert, although one comfortable with uncertainty (in an essay about his conversion, he writes “I believe in a God who can err all he damn well pleases, and probably does. Or not. How could I know?”). I mention this because there is a radical Catholic strain to these philosophical questions — perhaps a particularly Jesuit strain, in fact.
Elsewhere in Dead People, Meis shows his facility as a literary critic. His eulogy for John Updike includes a generous but perceptive observation about a scene from Rabbit at Rest: “You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well. You can only write like this if you really care about the experience, if you take it seriously. Updike took it seriously. By flattening his metaphysics, by letting everything be essential, Updike discovered a new richness.” He is equally spot-on about David Foster Wallace: “He wanted to get hold of what it’s like to be a person in this particular world without either dismissing the vast sea of commercial and popular culture we live in or pretending that we don’t often feel uneasy swimming around in that sea.”
Golberg’s half of Dead People leans cultural. She eulogizes Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47. He was a sickly child who studied poetry and whose family had been exiled to Siberia. Kalashnikov once said “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” but he instead created an instrument of violence. Rather than simply take the easy approach of sullying him, Golberg wonders
Whether it’s a lawnmower or a locomotive or an AK-47, the inventor is always faced with the same burden — how to turn chaos into order. But the chaos the inventor faces is not only the chaos of nature; it is also the chaos of human desire. The inventor stands between these two forces, pulled in both directions, servant to both nature and man.
As Meis does with bin Laden, Golberg uses eulogies to not only complicate our understandings of her subjects, but also force us to look inward: “As much as inventions come out of the inventor’s hands, they are, in the end, form to the dark shapelessness of all life. Remember, [Mary] Shelley warned us in her story, inventors only give form to substance. They cannot bring into being the substance itself. The form of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention was an AK-47. But the substance of his invention is us.”
Another worthy subject is Mary Ellen Mark, who photographed “people who dwelled on society’s fringes: street kids, prostitutes, junkies, the homeless, women who were mentally ill.” Think Amanda and her Cousin Amy, the shot of a 9-year-old, one arm across her chest, standing in a kiddie pool, smoking a cigarette.
Golberg thinks “Mark’s genius was to capture the subtlety of a woman’s monstrosity: the errant scar, the odd slump of a body, the too-happy smile, the worldly-wise and cynical stare.” Mark’s photographs were affirmations of presence; she captioned each photo the same — “I exist.” She believed that even the photographer’s presence was necessary in the communion of the photograph, whether it be the shot’s angle, the subject’s pose, or even the reflection of the artist in the eyes of her subject.
That might be the central metaphor of Dead People: how we see the living in those who have passed. Golberg’s discussion of the enigmatic Sun Ra might be her purest act of praise. “Ideas and music carried a reclusive black boy from Birmingham and transported him into outer space.” Sun Ra chose jazz because it is the “music of the restless, the awakened.” He would tell his musicians “If you’re not mad at the world, you don’t have what it takes.”
Golberg considers how Arkestra, Sun Ra’s orchestra, intermingled “music, theatre, dance, philosophy” as they “combined the ancient and the radical future, African rhythms played with fists and synthesizers played with the elbows.” Sun Ra wanted unity, in both his band and in the performative connection with the audience. That required a measure of discipline in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and Elijah Muhammad, yet “discipline alone lacked, for Sun Ra, creative energy, vitality.”
As the authors of Dead People do best, Sun Ra becomes a vessel for a deeper discussion; “When morality expressed itself in beauty, daily life had a little more of that mysterious, mystical quality to it, a quality Sun Ra was always searching for to conquer the ‘unpleasant’ aspects of what it was to be human on Earth. Morality could make life sensible but beauty made life happy. Why wear only a black suit and tie when we have available to us all the colors of the rainbow?”
Essays about death should contain a lot of questions. Golberg and Meis’s approach to eulogies models a provocative but useful approach towards the eulogy form: the ability to empathize with and yet also tell the truth about those no longer with us. Let the dead bury the dead — but let the living eulogize them.
Readers of this blog know that Kapuscinski is among my favorite writers. He was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland’s national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the “little wars,” the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski’s work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what’s missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I’ve read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn’t to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today’s conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah’s, the parallels to today’s struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.Those interested in politics and media may want to read a new book by John Powers called Sore Winners. When I lived in Los Angeles, Powers’ column “On” in the LA Weekly was a must-read for me. Powers strikes a great balance between intelligence and humor, and he has the classic ability of Angelinos, living far from the nation’s capitol, to deliver an unfettered, outsider’s perspective.
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that, in its early years, Twitter suffered from a lot of internal turmoil. After all, the company has cycled through three different CEOs in four years. But the power struggle depicted in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal is likely far greater than anyone could have imagined. Culling from some 65 hours of interviews with current and former Twitter employees, in addition to employee emails, IMs, and confidential legal notices, Bilton has used all his access to write a compelling exposé of Twitter’s cofounders — a startup soap opera for the Valleywag age.
From the ruins of the stalled podcasting startup Odeo, Twitter emerged in 2006 as an idea then-nobody programmer Jack Dorsey had about “status updates.” Later that year, he, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone would dismantle Odeo to work on Twitter full time, which is more or less where the good times ended. The company would struggle under Dorsey’s “incompetent” leadership as CEO, Williams would take over, and later be replaced himself by current CEO Dick Costolo, with Dorsey also being brought back onboard. Costolo and Stone are mentioned throughout the book, but remain largely background characters. Bilton centers Hatching Twitter around the relationship between Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams because that’s where all the melodrama is.
The book seems to generally come down harder on Dorsey than it does on Williams, but Bilton discovers an interesting divide in what each cofounder believes Twitter should be. Dorsey sees Twitter as an outlet to express oneself outward, while Williams’s vision is based around telling stories about people. These philosophical differences influence the site’s technical development as well. (Dorsey, for example, believes in focusing on mobile while Williams believes more time should be put toward the website.) In one of the book’s best moments, Dorsey and Williams are arguing about whether the pre-populated question in the status update box should ask the user “what are you doing?” or “what’s happening?” Bilton writes:
To many this might sound like semantics. Yet these were two completely different ways of using Twitter. Was it about me, or was it about you? Was it about ego, or was it about others? In reality, it was about both. One never would have worked without the other.
Here, Bilton is accomplishing several things at once: he’s remarking on the thoughtful subtleties that made Twitter so powerful, illustrating the conceptual divide between Jack and Ev, and developing their irreconcilable relationship to the reader.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of this throughout the book. Later, it becomes clear Bilton is interested in painting Dorsey as a tragic figure, a 28 year old who came to Odeo to work with industry role models and friends, whose creation of Twitter would ironically sever those ties he sought so desperately to make. It feels like a stretch, especially at the end when, in a moment of loneliness, Dorsey dramatically checks Twitter.
In fact, the entire theme of loneliness throughout Hatching Twitter comes across as particularly facile. Bilton attributes a shared sense of isolation as the genesis for Twitter:
It could be a technology that would erase a feeling that an entire generation felt while staring into their computer screens. An emotion that Noah and Jack and Biz and Ev had grown up feeling, finding solace in a monitor. An emotion that Noah [Glass] felt night after night as his marriage and company fell apart: loneliness.
In a book where Bilton touts the accuracy of what he details in an author’s note, Hatching Twitter still feels like it’s constantly making leaps when it comes to its subjects’ motives and emotions. Many of these sections are notably light on quotations in a book that is otherwise so abundant with them.
It’s disappointing to watch Bilton commit to such an obvious trope: the despair of the lonely computer nerd. Dorsey is drawn as a caricature of a developer, a man-child whose desires have the maturity of an early high schooler. There’s a moment, too, when Dorsey’s relationship with Odeo founder Noah Glass is sullied when he becomes jealous of Glass’s friendship with another coworker named Crystal Taylor. Dorsey’s infatuation is solidified early on when Taylor teaches him what “texting” is — making a crush literally the inspiration for Twitter.
The moment reminded me of something Mark Zuckerberg said after seeing The Social Network. According to Zuckerberg, the most inaccurate part of the movie is the way it’s framed. Aaron Sorkin’s version of Zuckerberg is motivated by getting back at an ex-girlfriend; in real life, Zuckerberg had been dating the same girl since Facebook’s inception.
“It’s such a big disconnect from the way people who make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley — building stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.”
Similar comments were echoed by Dorsey’s boss at Odeo, Tony Stubblebine, in a Quora post about the accuracy of Bilton’s adapted excerpt of Hatching Twitter from The New York Times Magazine. Is the notion that Dorsey just wants to be in control of a product he’s created so unbelievable or so unconvincing that his motives need to be supplemented by adolescent jealousy?
And yet while the characters featured in Hatching Twitter feel more like archetypes than actual humans, it’s hard not to eat this stuff up. Aspects of Dorsey’s behavior are hilariously juvenile. After being ousted from the company, he continued to take any and all interviews about Twitter, feigning authority when answering questions he did not know the answer to. Dorsey would also set up meetings with his @twitter.com email address as a bait-and-switch to talk about his new startup Square (he would have his email address revoked).
Bilton has an excellent sense of pace, and there are several scenes — in particular, the chapter where Dorsey gets fired — that are exciting enough to be lifted word-for-word into a film adaptation. Of course, this all depends how exciting you can find a chapter cliffhanger that ends with someone calling Mark Zuckerberg. In the final pages of Hatching Twitter, I questioned whether the book really had anything meaningful to say about Twitter, its founders, or even any of the tumultuous things that transpired between them. Bilton is less concerned about what Twitter is and more interested in the human drama between its founders. The company itself is just the battleground for an ego-driven power struggle, and as gripping as it is to see some of the smartest minds in tech tell each other to go fuck themselves, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just read nearly 300 pages of privileged white men yelling at each other.
Wow. Sports Illustrated has just published an excerpt of Game of Shadows by SF Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams that lays out what can only be described as incontrovertible evidence that Barry Bonds has been a rampant steroid user for the last several years. This is going to rock the baseball world, and I hope it really does shake things up – I’d love to see the game get back to the way it was before wierdly beefy guys started launching home runs night after night. This is big book news too. I got a breathless “news alert” from a publicist pointing to the impact the SI excerpt is having on the book’s sales. As of this writing, yesterday’s Amazon rank for the book was 119,745 and now it’s up to 75, and climbing I’d assume. So here’s to a clean, non-chemically enhanced baseball season. Can we make it happen this year, please?