I thought I was pretty familiar with Alexander Herzen. I’d read Isaiah Berlin’s articles on him and parts of his autobiography, and I could have told a good story about how as a teenager he swore an oath to fight tsarist tyranny, how he fled Russia for Western Europe and established the first free Russian press, and how he was vilified by both conservatives and radicals for his unfashionably nuanced views. All of that is true, but in reading Aileen M. Kelly’s new biography, The Discovery of Chance, I found that I really knew hardly anything about him. In the first place, he studied the natural sciences in college rather than history or philosophy like almost every other socially aware student of his generation, and this gave him the lens through which he viewed everything else: man was part of nature, and history was the product of natural laws. He had this crucial insight before Charles Darwin, and publicized it long before Darwin dared to. Furthermore, history, like life in general, was driven by chance rather than any kind of higher plan; it wasn’t heading inevitably toward a socialist paradise or any other destination. This idea was unacceptable to almost everyone then and is resisted even now, and Herzen himself took many years to assimilate it. Herzen’s twin emphases on truth and freedom carried him through to conclusions that still have the power to surprise and provoke: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well…Love, friendship, tribal loyalty, and finally even love of freedom have served as inexhaustible sources of moral oppression and servitude.” He opposed what he called “the mysticism of science,” and asked his fellow radicals “why belief in God is ridiculous and belief in humanity is not.”
Kelly maintains a fine balance between the events of his life and the intellectual currents that shaped him; she has useful summaries of the work and ideas of thinkers like Georges Cuvier, Buffon, Montesquieu, and Emmanuel Kant, and a paragraph on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling explains that mistily transcendental philosopher in a way that for the first time gives me an idea of what he meant and why he was so popular. She gives vivid descriptions of radicals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had a huge influence on both Herzen and all of Europe. She seems to have absorbed everything relevant to her subject, and she challenges received opinion with brio. As I was reading it, I was thinking that anyone interested in the intellectual life of the 19th century would profit from this book, but having finished it, I think anyone interested in intellectual life, period, should get it. It’s the best work of history or biography I’ve read in a long time.
Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 is an absorbing and detailed analysis of medieval history; his discussions of the interplay between the military and social meanings of words for “knight,” the history and spread of the general label “Frank” (“The classic enterprise which stimulated the use of this term was the crusade, the ‘Deeds of the Franks’ as its earliest chronicler called it”), race relations in the frontier zone of Latin Europe (“If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs”), and localized repertoires of names (“It is easy, given a few personal names, to tell which region or ethnic group is being talked about”) kept me reading with interest and taught me a great deal.
David Stahel’s Kiev 1941 shows that Adolf Hitler’s war in the east was lost by the end of August 1941; the rest was a long, drawn-out, incredibly destructive demonstration of that fact, with the Soviet advantage in manpower and resupply grinding down the German war machine. Hitler and Joseph Stalin both made major errors, but Stalin learned from his and started letting his generals make decisions; Hitler learned nothing and insisted more and more on his unique genius. This is a superb book of military history, with a fresh and convincing analysis.
Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, and was bowled over by both. The first, a set of stories whose characters often find themselves in the Galleria Umberto in downtown Naples, won renown when it was published in 1947 (John Dos Passos called it “the first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war”) but seems to have been forgotten along with its author, who faded quickly; NYRB Classics revived it a few years ago, and I hope it regains its deserved high reputation. Lewis was a British intelligence officer before he became one of the finest travel writers of the last century, and his account of his experience mediating between the triumphant Allies and the starving but resourceful Neapolitans is alternately funny, horrifying, and just plain humane. Together they provide a stereoscopic view of a time and place that will help Ferrante readers understand the world her characters were shaped by, and will help any reader understand the behavior of armies among civilian populations.
Also during 2016 I went on a Herman Melville binge (Moby-Dick is as great as I remembered, Israel Potter was surprisingly enjoyable, and The Confidence-Man turns out to be an amazing novel the vision of which is too dark to allow it the popularity it merits), and my wife and I continue to make our way through Anthony Trollope (we’re not enjoying the parliamentary novels as much as the Barchester series so far, but that’s a high bar, and we’re only up to Phineas Finn).
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
Ad Age recently revealed that McDonald’s is getting into the publishing business. For the first two weeks of November, children’s books with a nutritional theme will replace the toys in Happy Meals. With titles like The Goat Who Ate Everything and Dodi the Dodo Goes to Orlando, the books are processed products through and through, created by the ad agency Leo Burnett, intended to create good press for the fast-food company by signaling its commitment to literacy and nutrition. McDonald’s ran a similar campaign earlier this year in the U.K., which inspired a list of satirical book titles (e.g., Harry Potter and the Deathly Swallows) under a #mcbooks hashtag on Twitter.The hashtag has been revived with the announcement of the new campaign.
This is not, however, the first time McDonald’s has distributed children’s books. In 1979, when I was five years old, living in Wilmington, DE, my family took one of our painfully rare trips to McDonald’s to get Happy Meals for my sisters and me. There were few things more exciting at the time than opening up that iconic box to see what sort of toy was inside. On this visit, however, there was no toy. The counterperson handed over a little paperback with a drawing on the cover of a boy whitewashing a fence.
McDonald’s introduced me — and I would venture thousands of other kids — not only to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but also to the notion of a classic. In 1977 and again in 1979, the fast food chain paired up with the publisher I. Waldman & Son to distribute Illustrated Classics Editions in their restaurants. Waldman had published children’s versions of classic literature, such as The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby-Dick, in 1977 under the brand name Moby Books and, in 1979, the publisher paired with Playmore, Inc. to distribute the series in supermarkets, drugstores, and other retail sites. They released 12 titles that year and another dozen in 1983. The books measured 5.5 by 4 inches and were typically 238 pages long, with each page of text facing an illustration.
Over the next few years, I collected a half dozen Illustrated Classics books, but that first encounter with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the moment when I discovered literature.
Granted, Deidre S. Laiken’s adaptation of Twain’s novel might not count for everyone as literature. Here is Twain’s opening:
“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”
Here is Laiken:
Tom Sawyer was always getting into trouble. He was the kind of boy who just could not resist adventure.
In this textbook example of the difference between writing that shows versus writing that tells, Twain gives us an immediate sense of what Laiken can only report to us. Tom Sawyer in the original is such a miscreant that he does not even bother to show up for the start of the novel that bears his name, while the Illustrated Classics version frames Tom’s character and the entire narrative for its readers, wary of letting us interpret too much on our own.
What really mattered to me in the long term, however, was not the quality of the text but the authority behind it. There were few institutions I respected more than McDonald’s, so when I saw that it had endorsed a line of books grouped under this mysterious rubric “classic,” I knew that this was a work worth reading. More significantly, I learned from McDonald’s that there was a whole class of books out there that were especially worth reading. I read a lot of junk as a kid — loads of books about movie monsters, World War II, and science fiction, plus a mountain of comics — but I took special pride in reading classics and presidential biographies and was thrilled when adults complimented me on my taste and sophistication.
All this reading and complimenting eventually led to a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, where I learned that what McDonald’s had introduced me to at the age of five was the concept of cultural capital. The term comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, and it refers to “forms of knowledge, skills, education, and advantages that a person has, which give them a higher status in society.” Speaking Standard English, knowing how to order and eat at a four-star restaurant, and being able to discuss art and music are all forms of cultural capital. They are ways of signaling one’s membership in a class and even of advancing within and beyond it. My primary motive for reading Illustrated Classics, to be sure, was pleasure (as is the case with my reading of literature today), but I was aware early on that some of that enjoyment derived from the sense of distinction I felt in doing so.
I used to enjoy the irony that I have held onto the taste for literature that I picked up at McDonald’s much longer than I did the taste for its food. Nowadays, I feel more wistful for a moment in time when a fast food company thought it could promote itself by providing kids with editions of Twain, Dumas, and Dickens. I am not naïve enough to think McDonald’s did so on account of its pure love of literature. The company entered into this promotion with the same sense of self-interest and desire for synergy that it did when it embarked on it first cross-promotion of a film with the Star Trek Happy Meal in 1979, the year the Happy Meal debuted. And in much the same way that this upcoming publishing endeavor is likely intended to wash away some of the association of the McDonald’s name with junk food and childhood obesity, the Illustrated Classics scheme was probably meant to raise the brow of a company whose main contribution to culture was a mountain of advertising featuring a creepy clown and his oddly shaped friends.
What seems unbelievable now — and even sweet — is that McDonald’s ever cared about its brow enough to try raising it. McDonald’s and I had that in common: we wanted to elevate ourselves by association with the classics, only I held onto that desire long after the fast food chain did. I went to grad school for a lot of reasons, but McDonald’s Illustrated Classics played their own little part in that decision. It’s not a choice I regret, but, in this deeply pessimistic moment for English departments, I cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when literature’s cultural stock was so high that even McDonald’s wanted to invest in it.
Like Rachel Kushner earlier this year, Marisha Pessl faced a nightmare known to only the luckiest novelists. Pessl’s debut, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a smash critical and popular success that fetched a six-figure advance, and now she needed to produce a follow-up that somehow topped it. Like Kushner before her, Pessl resisted the temptation to stick with a winning formula; instead she used a broad canvas to produce a novel that is in every way bigger, more ambitious, and more satisfying than her splashy debut.
Pessl’s new novel is called Night Film. People who require categories for their fiction should probably shelve it in the “literary thriller” section, though a genre label is as pointless as a plot summary for a novel as ectoplasmic and slippery as this one. On its base level, Night Film is an exoneration quest by Scott McGrath, the book’s narrator, a disgraced investigative journalist who once tried to penetrate the shell of a reclusive filmmaker named Stanislav Cordova — only to get sued by Cordova and lose everything, including job, wife, daughter, and a fair chunk of his life’s savings and self-esteem. Cordova’s disturbing films, which give the novel its title, have developed a cult following that is literally underground: the movies are so shocking that they’re shown only at secret screenings in tunnels under cities. McGrath describes Cordova as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world…He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.”
When Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, dies of an apparent suicide in a shabby warehouse in downtown Manhattan, McGrath feels the old tug: “I could feel it starting again — the dark undertow toward Cordova. Forget my fury toward him, which still simmered — this was a chance for absolution. If I went for him again and proved he was a predator — what I’d believed in my gut — all I’d lost might come back.”
McGrath enlists two young assistants for his investigation — Hopper Cole, a scruffy drug dealer and one-time boyfriend of Ashley’s, and Nora Halliday, a coat check girl/actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. So, on the face of it, we have a good old-fashioned journalistic investigation. That’s like saying Moby-Dick was a fish story.
What sets Night Film apart is that the telling of the story — the quest for an elusive truth — becomes the story. It’s a deft act of authorial legerdemain that could have backfired, but in Pessl’s hands the story whips along even as it becomes increasingly unclear what the story is, or where it’s heading. As the investigation unfolds, we meet a string of Cordova’s assistants, neighbors, actors, and ex-wives, as well as security guards, tattoo artists, hotel maids, and clerks, shopkeepers, landladies, anyone who had contact with the family. There are intimations of black magic, secret rituals, child sacrifice. The more McGrath and his cohorts learn about Ashley’s life, the less certain they are about the circumstances of her death. It doesn’t help that her invisible father appears to be pulling strings to thwart their investigation.
Pessl embroiders her prose with a grab bag of visual effects that attempt to give the novel documentary heft, including police reports, typed transcripts of telephone calls, photographs, newspaper clippings, text messages, e-mails, online news articles, psychiatric evaluations, and postings from a highly secretive fan website known as The Blackboards. For me, these visuals feel gimmicky and rote, more meta-smoke than actual fire.
But Pessl’s writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published. That novel, the story of a precocious teenage girl and her peripatetic professor dad, had a hyperventilated prose style that struck me as too cute by at least half. At 600 pages, it was also way too long. The book’s privileged teenagers, known as the Bluebloods, exuded none of the anomie of the young things in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, none of the darkness of Donna Tartt’s undergrads in The Secret History. Now Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance. Her writing is frequently deft and insightful. Here’s a bombastic Cordova scholar: “There were two things Beckman truly loathed in life: sitting in the first three rows of a movie theater and the Catholic Church.” And here’s a mousy piano salesman: “You could spot these Mahler-loving men within a ten-block radius of Carnegie Hall. They tended to wear earth tones, have on DVD all of public television’s Great Performances series, live alone in apartments on the Upper West Side, and have potted plants they spoke to daily.”
Marlowe Hughes, a faded actress, delivers a delicious evisceration of McGrath and his two assistants when they show up to interview her, beginning with Hopper:
“This must be Tarzan, Greystoke, Lord of the Apes. You’re missing a grunt and a club. Can’t wait to see you in your loincloth. Now, who else do we have here?” Enunciating this acidly, she leaned forward to survey Nora. “A chorus girl. You won’t be able to fuck your way to the middle, Debbie. And you.” She turned to me. “A wannabe Warren, straight from Reds. Every one of you, the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless. You people demand to know about Cordova?” She scoffed dramatically, though it sounded like a handful of pebbles rasping in her throat. “And so fleas look up at the sky and wonder why stars.”
As good as such passages are, the writing is not flawless. Pessl has a lazy way with adverbs. People sweat “profusely,” winds howl “punitively,” matches blow out “abruptly,” hair is cropped “hastily.” After a while I found myself wishing Pessl had read Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writing, including Rule #3: Avoid adverbs. Her heavy use of italics is also unsettling, especially in the trite koans sprinkled throughout the text: Within every elaborate lie, a kernel of truth…Astonishing how quickly money jogged a man’s memory… Everyone smiles for a photograph… Even worse are passages like this dubious bit of social analysis:
In the age of the Internet, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano you can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for your own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.
At first I took such italics as a form of shorthand, a clumsy way of telegraphing meaning. But by the end of the book I had come to see the italics as an effective way of revealing McGrath as a relentless pile-driver, pounding away at his quest for the truth. The italics contribute to McGrath’s portrayal as a driven and annoying character. Which is to say he’s just like most journalists.
To return to the comparison with Rachel Kushner, I would argue that Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was an even tougher act to follow than Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Telex was a first novel that didn’t behave like one. It had nothing to do with its young creator’s erudition or deft wordplay; it had everything to do with history, politics, and social hierarchies in the lost world of an American enclave in pre-Castro Cuba. There was nothing solipsistic about it. Unlike Special Topics, it felt like the work of a fully formed talent.
But that’s not to diminish Pessl’s achievement in Night Film. For me, the book’s finest passage is when the trio penetrates Cordova’s remote estate, The Peak, and then get separated. Chased by dogs and guards, McGrath eludes them by submerging himself in a muck-filled swimming pool, hiding in a greenhouse full of hallucinogenic plants, and wandering through Cordova’s elaborate soundstage. The episode plays out like an extended drug trip — McGrath believes he has become part of a Cordova film — and it leaves him shaken and baffled.
That, to Pessl’s credit, is how McGrath — and the reader — wind up at the end of the book. The mystery is not tied up with a tidy bow, the big questions remain unanswered. But when McGrath finally comes face-to-face with his prey, he has the good sense to be willing to shut up, for once, and listen to Cordova’s version of the truth. It’s the smartest move he makes.