There’s a comical number of books we are all supposed to read in this age of Donald Trump. Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and a legion of others that don’t even include all the books about Trump that are written with Trumpian nuance. Books that announce their souls with titles like Fire and Fury and Unhinged. Both sorts—the classics and the classless—risk domination by Trump’s personality. The pervasive, presidential shag has become his own hermeneutic, a maw of interpretation that reduces the loglines for classics and bestsellers alike to his own favorite paradigm: cheap relevancy.
What people need in this fractured age is a book that can accomplish two seemingly contradictory goals. The first is escape, but not your usual escape. By all means, subsume yourself in far-away worlds or cozy cottage deaths; the news shouldn’t play subtext to every waking hour. Additionally, however, is the escape of concentration, an escape that feels especially rare amidst our collective din of notifications. A friend remarked a year or so ago that she found her usual diet of novels more of a tonic than ever because nowhere else could she find as undistracted a mind in action. That perhaps romanticizes the literary experience. Good. We need brighter and more idealistic visions of reading. Concentrate, we should tell ourselves, and thereby feel a little freedom.
The second and more trumpeted goal for reading right now is that we need books that can give us context or insight into what has been (for many of us) a disorienting time. To what extent should we anticipate political dysfunction collapsing into political violence? What factors have contributed to this era of open corruption and rising tribalism, and how do we search for solutions? Here, we are told in various listicles, are books that have answers. And yet there’s one book that is missing from these types of lists, and it isn’t one of the books folks should read, it is the One Book everyone should attempt for 2019. A distraction, a challenge, a historical saga, a spiritual referee, a book so big that back-cover salesmanship and listicle logic shudder under its romping, magisterial shadow. Considered her magnum opus, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a witty and good-spirited bully, a masterpiece of honest investigation that is as irreducible to the current moment as it is relevant.
Subtitled A Journey Through Yugoslavia, the hulking paperback is often billed as a travelogue. This is technically true, in the same sense that your friend might say, “Meet my cat,” only your friend is a zookeeper. The cat is a lion and perhaps here to eat you. Meet my cat isn’t inaccurate, but neither is it sufficient to explain the situation. Along with her husband and one of Serbia’s leading poets, West tours from Croatia to Montenegro and details an array of pleasant churches, courtyards, sartorial traditions, food, and fertility rites. The book certainly could be used on a journey, or even more likely read as a substitute for one. Its first pleasure is the simplicity of getting away.
But what Black Lamb and Grey Falcon should properly be billed as is an epic of Western history and thought, a book that uses the historical development of the Balkans to investigate nationhood, human violence, spirituality, and the necessity of art. Published in 1941, the post-WWII history of the region does nothing to limit the power of the book’s truths, even when West fails to predict some of the area’s most salient developments (primarily, communism). Never simply one thing, West’s goliath is as interested in the Balkans-qua-Balkans as it is in letting the Balkans’ oppression exemplify humanity’s formal extremes of violence and hate. By formal, I mean the infrastructures that civilizations create to justify, suppress, and foment our basest instincts of annihilation and self-destruction. Caught between the hammer of Austria and the, er, bigger hammer of the Ottoman Empire for most of its history, the Balkans existed in 1937 as a mess of national biases and emergencies. Victims in recovery (one might say), the various nations that composed interwar Yugoslavia indicted at every level the great powers that wrecked them and the spirit behind those powers that wrecked Europe and the world only a few years later. Meet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; it’s a travelogue.
A definitive hatchet job on the values of imperialism, the book unpacks empire’s fundamental lust for erasure on the part of the aggressor by reviewing three main narratives of history, all of which cover decades of struggle and strife. West begins with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand; continues with the 19th-century liberation and subsequent struggles of Serbia, which climax with the assassinations of King Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga; and concludes with the medieval fracturing of the Serbian empire, which lost the ability to self-govern when the Ottomans beat Tsar Lazar soundly in 1389 on the Kosovo field. Duck if West turns your direction, though, because the too-ready concession to pacifism and purity virtue-signaling on the part of those who might oppose the aggressor is also lambasted. At times she sounds like segments of the current American left when it comes to her progressive pals: “Democrats don’t want to rule,” she might tweet, though only as the final punch-line to a thousand-post thread on the evils of American border camps.
If you want relevancy, then Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is as interested in fascism, the exploited urban poor, the rural disaffected, and the malignant stupidity of the powers-that-be as any book I’ve ever read. It features a horrifying travel companion named Gerda, who if represented even half accurately, is a legitimate approximation for the plain-faced bigotry of Nazi Germany that was so explicit as to be easily doubted. West and her husband discuss, in fact, how no one will believe that Gerda could be so anti-Semitic (she’s married to a Jew!) or anti-Slavic (her Jewish husband is a Serbian!). It’s the banality of evil, in a certain sense, long before Arendt made the term famous. Daily life is full of dullness, and when the exceptional occurs, the dullness is often too established to be disrupted. Gerda couldn’t be that bad, part of us thinks, life is never so bald day-to-day. But for all the complications of history, West assures us that we’re wrong. Gerda’s type of hatred is what makes domination thrum. West ultimately pits imperialism against nationalism, insisting that the horrors of the former not be blindly attributed to the latter. Perhaps nationalism as a concept is beyond recovery for you; read this book and discover whether that remains a viable opinion in the face of cultures who must assert their personality as a bulwark against destruction.
So, the book’s content feels current. Yet Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is that much rarer breed, a book of big ideas whose relevancy can’t be draped over whatever fad or crisis is at hand. There are too many facts for such loose abstraction, facts giving birth to other facts at the rate of rabbits. Facts that cast shadows over other facts that all collude to blot out your easy opinions. There are enough facts you wonder if you ever attended a history course or know anything beyond the timeline of your own small life. West opens the book with a reminiscence on the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including an account of Empress Elisabeth’s 1898 assassination. Her son either killed himself or was assassinated some years before. Why does this matter? It put Franz Ferdinand in line to the throne, which might not have mattered if Alexander Obrenovic and his wife Draga—King and Queen of Serbia (remember?)—hadn’t also been assassinated, giving Serbia over to King Peter, who was a capable and intimidating leader. His rehabilitation of Serbia was feared by Austria, but especially by the blustery, hapless, and somewhat pitiable (only because he died) Franz Ferdinand. Hence why he was on the Serbian border when he was shot, which itself was only accomplished by a comedy of errors pulled directly from the imagination of Armando Ianucci.
The too-muchness of all the facts is the point of the book. In some ways, it’s a tracing of causality so complete that you realize the branching effects of any vital action become opaque in their relationship to each other. Trying to hold the accidents of history in your mind in such a way that their connections and disconnections are plain is an exercise in humility and perspective. West wants the reader to know the particulars, but not so that we can pretend to exhaustive comprehension. She wants to share how much she knows precisely because the facts overwhelm even as they illuminate.
Whatever headlines currently dominate your screens, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon transitions from the metaphysical to the historical to the personal with such grace, but also with such relentlessness, that it demands submission. The book is an uncompromising document of hard-won thought and artful intransigence, one that takes you by the hand and teaches you how to read it. History, I could hear West saying, is shorter than you think, and not neutral. Such guidance is the strength of all masterpieces, I think. They teach us a new way of reading that, if we’re lucky and receptive and not (you know) evil or anything, inaugurates a new way of seeing the world. I’ve never doubted that something like the Civil War was a cornerstone of American strife, but it was only as I was reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that such history felt recent.
While many books attempt to compress the world’s timeline, few, if any, can hope to imitate the way West walks events down a ladder of meaning from the continental to the personal. A perfect moment in one of the historical passages about King Stefan Dusan makes this plain:
In the 49th year of his life, at a village so obscure that it is not now to be identified, he died, in great pain, as if he had been poisoned. Because of his death many disagreeable things happened. For example, we sat in Pristina, our elbows on a tablecloth stained brown and puce, with chicken drumsticks on our plates meagre as sparrow-bones, and there came towards us a man and a woman; and the woman was carrying on her back the better part of a plough.
Comic rather than profound, the movement in this excerpt is a microcosm of the book’s audacity. A king dying in the 14th century in a country distant from her own cannot be impersonal to West if that king’s death not only (in some labyrinth of causality) precipitated the First World War but explains the looming Second World War. Geoffrey Dyer rightly identifies the genius of this passage—and the book—as one of tone. West (the narrator, at least) doesn’t distinguish between persons living or dead, events grand or minimal. They all act upon her, and she unravels their knotted connections with unerring wit.
Perhaps West makes her own case best: “Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tested.” A goblet, a shot, a canteen—a quaff is more than the liquid. A pint of whiskey is still whiskey, but also a cry for help. West’s form is irreducible to scale, although the book’s length makes demands of the reader in and of itself. Her conversations with her husband, her friends, the locals; her forays into art history and craft categorization; her boundless self-deprecation; her insistence that history be viewed intact, every point of the present roped and knotted to leashes reaching out from the past; it’s a grandiose and ridiculous project held together by her casual intimacy with narratives small, epic, and middle-class.
The book is Platonic dialogue, political intrigue, spiritual memoir, vicarious tourism, and not least a polemical tirade aimed at Ancient Rome, Neville Chamberlain, and any idiot in-between. The political history and philosophy the book details are vital, but I can’t think of any other text I’ve either read or even read about that elevates journalism to Homeric proportions. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is an argument that news cycles last hundreds of years. Our own moment will pass, but its consequences will remain recent history long after we’re dead. Read anyone else you please in the Year of Our Lord 2019, but Rebecca West is relevance immortalized.
Image: Flickr/Jo Naylor
On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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Jarett Kobek’s writing resists categorization. It swerves between fiction, personal nonfiction, and cultural critique in a fashion whose closest antecedent is probably the New Narrative prose of writers like Kevin Killian. Novels like 2013’s BTW toggle between modes: the novel rhapsodizes over Los Angeles in lyrical prose that evokes the city’s ephemeral quality, but lyricism is the velvet glove in which Kobek cloaks his acerbic wit. With 2016’s I Hate the Internet, Kobek cast off the lyricism in favor of trenchant social criticism that seemed capable of sparking class warfare. Kobek’s focus on technology continues with this year’s Soft & Cuddly, but this time he foregoes fiction altogether in favor a tale of neoliberalism’s collision with early video game culture. Using the controversy 1987 video game “Soft & Cuddly” — which was developed by teenager John George Jones — as a case study, Kobek unfurls a story of society’s panic over representations of violence and a youth-based subculture whose only goal is to undercut that society’s social mores. I spoke with Kobek about thinking of the Internet as a weapon, social media’s role in the 2016 election, the aesthetics of male adolescence, and seriality in fiction.
Jarett Kobek: Yeah, you were there for me being Bernie Bro’d. I feel like everyone who was there should have a reunion at some point, we all went through something.
TM: Especially after the election — like, the bro ended up being right about Twitter.
JK: Yeah, ultimately he was right about Twitter. He just had the wrong candidate.
TM: I wonder, in light of the election, if your thoughts on the nature of the Internet, but especially Twitter, have shifted at all.
JK: The underlying critique of all this stuff just making money for people hasn’t shifted, but I think it’s impossible to look at Trump’s rise and feel like we haven’t lived through a profound shift in the way politics is conducted. For all the hand-wringing that accompanies every election cycle over sinking to new partisan lows or how politics used to have dignity, I do think that what Trump essentially did was adopt the emotional and intellectual frequency of the Internet flame war, and turn it into presidential politics. Turns out it works very well!
The thing is, if you’re the annoying person in the flame war, someone else has to be putting forth the reasonable, well-crafted argument about some issue. And all your response has to be is, “You’re a bag of dicks.” Then you watch them slowly collapse in response trying to figure out how to respond to this thing. But of course you can’t respond to someone calling you a bag of dicks without looking like a bag of dicks, and that’s what Trump did to all of his opponents. It’s bizarre seeing the Internet crawl into presidential level politics and be effective.
TM: I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt after the election, especially Origins of Totalitarianism, and she describes how totalitarian politics thrives on the suspension of the reality effect. It’s weird to think that that dynamic has always been embedded in the Internet, and that it might be an inherently totalitarian space.
JK: Yeah, what’s always struck me as weird is that not that long ago, there was a lot of rhetoric around the Internet as an instrument of peace, and if not as peace, then the expansion of human rights. But the thing is, basically it was built as a weapon. It was built by the Department of Defense to facilitate communication in the event of a war, to have this really decentralized network that allowed you to launch weapons. I think something about the decision in how that architecture was designed has really facilitated the moment that we’re in now. I tend to think that technology never escapes its genesis, and those engineering decisions made in response to the ideologies of the creators just persist. So there’s this way in which you can look at the underlying architecture of the Internet, which did not prioritize a specific type of communication, so that data could go in any direction as growing into what we have now: any idiot can say any bullshit, and it will have the same priority as things that are true, or things that are just.
So, it comes out of this moment, and it comes out of decisions made decades ago. So I do think there’s a weirdly authoritarian impulse embedded in the Internet.
TM: So did Trump just actualize something that was always lurking in the Internet?
JK: Yeah, I think that’s right.
TM: Let’s talk about the book. When did you start writing Soft & Cuddly?
JK: I started thinking about it about a year and a half ago, and I thought it’d be an interesting article, because there was something so strange about the game. but I couldn’t figure out what the article would be. I started to do more research into it, and then Boss Fight Books had an open call for pitches in May 2015. These people seemed like they might be willing to make a mistake on something that’s much different from what they usually do. Then I started writing in the fall of 2015, because I had the sense that I Hate the Internet was going to eat a lot of my time. I turned in a draft, and it was like the worst thing I’d ever written.
TM: So you were writing it simultaneously with I Hate the Internet?
JK: I Hate the Internet was done in October 2015, and Soft & Cuddly was written in snatches of time while I Hate the Internet was exploding.
TM: I want to get back to the stylistic connections between those two books, but can you say more about where the interest in writing about a video game came from?
JK: There was a really interesting moment when people had personal computers, a hobbyist moment when people could get a computer and tinker with it. My father was this guy who just bought a Commodore 64 in the early ‘80s and was immediately entranced with it, so my childhood was watching this Turkish immigrant chain smoke while programming this computer. I have an enormous fondness for that moment.
The second thing is, there’s something about the game “Soft and Cuddly” and its predecessor, “Go to Hell,” that I find really fascinating. There are these cultural moments, every once in a while, these moments of openness when for some reason a 15-year-old is able to exist in something like a professional context, and their work is just incredibly weird — because they’re 15! “Soft and Cuddly” looks like someone’s high school notebook from 1990, like someone’s drawing of Metallica logos come to life. There’s something really fascinating about how unpolished and immature that stuff is when it enters the wider world.
I didn’t write about this in the book, but when the underground comics scene was really happening in the Bay Area, there was this one kid that was hanging around named Rory Haze who did a handful of comics, and his work is just crazy. They were publishing a maladjusted 17-year-old! There’s something about those moments that I find endlessly fascinating, and “Soft and Cuddly” was one of the few times that happened with video games. Activision was like, yeah, why would we not publish a game by a 15-year-old? And then there was this controversy that grew up around the game, so that was interesting to write about as well.
TM: Those moments when these teen boys can exist in that professional capacity — are they moments when those boys are reflecting a sentiment in society that no one else is seeing. Are these boys cutting against Thatcherite social mores in a way that might only be possible for a teenager to do?
JK: One of the many tragedies of the teenage boy is the ability to see things in the world that are horrible, and to want to stand in opposition to them, while simultaneously embodying those tendencies. No one has ever accused teenage boys of being hallmarks of progressive thought. So you have this really weird crudeness that, because of that tension, that push and pull, is weirdly fascinating. I think you can see the opposition to the thing percolating up through its representation, like it’s trying to think through the circumstances they’re surrounded by.
TM: That makes me think, you describe the creator of “Soft and Cuddly” as being a “writer,” but narrative and plot aren’t really these games’ strong suit, at least not in the way that we recognize in literary fiction. Oftentimes, these games’ stories were written by the publisher. So what is he a writer of? Is he writing an attempt to think through his circumstances, or is something else going on?
JK: That’s a really good question! But I actually don’t know. It’s difficult — one of the things about this book that’s been really weird is that the creator, Jones, has been very supportive of the project, but there’s always this tension: I’m describing something that he did as a teenager. It’s awkward to say this stuff because I’m describing a human being who is 30 years older than the character I’m describing in the book. I can’t say much about motivation.
TM: If video games aren’t doing narrative or plot very well, then what do you think they’re providing? What’s the aesthetic pay off?
JK: Well, I think that’s hard to answer, but I think there are different functions. There’s been a very long argument about whether or not video games are art, and I think they clearly can be. I don’t think they often are, but they can be. That describes most cultural products. Most films and books aren’t art, they’re just products people put together. But I think where video games really can move into what we call for lack of a better word “art” is by putting us in the mindset of a totally different person. It’s a visitation into another’s person’s subjectivity that is relatively unprecedented. One of the things with video games that is only starting to become apparent is, like every other cultural product, the way to figure out if something is art is whether its appeal extends across decades. With something like “Soft and Cuddly,” people have been very interested in the game as time has gone on, and it’s inspired derivative works, including my book. That’s not something that you get with most of these games. No one really knows what the parameters are for determining whether or not a game is art, but you can start to see those parameters forming. You start to see it in the fact that people are still thinking about these games, which no one played at the time but which continue to inspire thought.
The more I dig into the history of this game, the stranger it got. I had no idea that these derivative works existed, but as I did my research, they kept popping up. This game that no one played somehow managed to inspire all of this stuff, and my book is one of those iterative works.
TM: Near the end of the book, a reproduced interview with British politician and novelist Jeffery Archer makes an assertion that playing video games is more dangerous than simply watching violent television, because it makes you “powerful.” What kind of power do you think he’s talking about?
JK: I do think there’s a certain power to it, but it’s the power of a certain kind of…there’s something weirdly liberating about the stupidity of the teenage boy’s notebook. There’s something hilariously freeing about seeing this thing come to life. I don’t think that’s the power he’s talking about! I suspect that because he was and is a very dark person, that power is something else. It probably says more about him than anything else—that’s a man who chased power his entire life, and maybe he could only see the game through this power of acquired political power, at the expense of anything else this experience might present us.
TM: I’m intrigued by the structure of the book, because it moves from doing case studies of life under a “postmodern” Thatcherite government, to the FalklandS War, to anthropological chapters on computer programming. It reminded me of both BTW and I Hate the Internet because there’s a sense of this roving consciousness weaving these strands together into a hybrid cultural history, narrative, and polemic. This occurs in all your books—what about that mixture of registers appeals to you?
JK: It’s funny, because it’s not even appealing so much as unavoidable. It’s something I developed unintentionally, and it’s something I keep returning to. In the case of Soft & Cuddly, when I conceived of the book, it wasn’t supposed to be like that—
TM: What was it going to be originally?
JK: I thought it would be much more straightforward in that it’d focus on John George Jones, the history of the game, etc. There was going to be a lot of information about how the game was created, its reception, and its afterlife. It was very linear. It turned out that the research I did for the book was useless. No one really remembered the games or had any information on the aspects of the game that interested me. There was a limit to the amount of useful information I could collect. But where the research did pay off was in the contemporary press accounts. I found this really remarkable article, where I got the Jeffrey Archer thing from, where British video games creator Mel Croucher did this round table with a who’s who of the British establishment. It’s crazy to think that they’re talking about a video game released on a system that no one was even using at the time the game came out. The more I try to get away from cultural context, the more it bleeds into my stories. The game’s social context just kind of bubbled up to the surface. That very quickly became the clear structure, because the other stuff just wasn’t that interesting.
TM: What are you working on now?
JK: I’ve got a book coming out through Viking at the end of the summer, in August. I just got their edits, and I’m also writing another book that is shaping up to be profoundly disturbing…we’ll see how it goes. The novel with Viking is a prequel to I Hate the Internet, written before I Hate the Internet. It’s Adeline and Baby in New York in the ‘90s. When I started writing the Internet, I thought there was something fascinating about the idea of Adeline, whom I’d conceived of as a Gen X in the decaying remnants of punk New York, having to deal with the Internet, and being thrust two decades forward. So much of my publication history is weird and out-of-joint because the book that was originally written is being published after its sequel.
TM: How did that happen?
JK: No one wanted to publish me! This is the hilarious back story to all of this. I wrote this story in 2012, and its been revised since, but I could not get anyone to look at it. It’s a very long book, so that precluded getting it published by an indie press because of cost and logistics. With Internet, it was the same story — it was hard to get anyone to pay attention to it. So when the book came out and became successful, much to everyone’s surprise, I had this other manuscript. In this process, because foreign rights offers started to come in, I had to get an agent to negotiate contracts in other countries. The agent read the manuscript and sent it out to major publishers, and Viking ended up with it. But it’s very strange, as is everything with me, a little out of order and all over the place.
TM: Is that a validation of independent publishing for you?
JK: Yeah, definitely! The virtue of having Viking do this book, other than not being able to do it on an independent press, is that I don’t have to deal with micromanaging every aspect of marketing and publishing another book. But if you do that, it can work out. So Internet’s success is a validation of this idea that you don’t need mainstream resources at your disposal to get these books out into the world.
TM: It’s funny — I’m in the Bay Area, and so when Internet came out it was everywhere when it came out, just because of the nature of people’s disdain for tech culture. But the book also blew up in part because of the Internet, right? How do you feel about that?
JK: Everyone who’s doing this has to make a series of moral compromises, and the question these compromises center around is, How big of an audience do you want to have? There’s a way to get your work out there that is legitimate, valid, and enviable, where your ethics aren’t compromised — but the reality of that is that you sell to 500 people. Having been published in small presses prior to this, I came to the conclusion that the problem as I see it with that model is that you end up communicating with people who are very similar to yourself. There’s not a huge amount of dialogue back and forth. So I made this decision that I would try to go as wide as possible. In so doing, you have to embrace the Internet, because that’s where the conversation is occurring. So you find yourself in bed with Amazon.
TM: Something really intrigues me about your work—you know, I read Internet after I found BTW in Skylight Books, and it was funny to me that Adeline is actually a minor character in BTW. I’m intrigued by the role that seriality plays in your writing. Why do you return to these characters and this world so often?
JK: The short answer is that I’m lazy! But the longer answer is that when you live with these characters — and with Adeline in particular — you end up learning something new about them as you write about them. So when I finished the Viking manuscript, I put it aside. Then I was revising BTW, there was a hole in the middle because I excised a chapter. I thought, why not have Adeline return? There was no reason I couldn’t have her return, so she did! I found it to be really interesting to think about. So when I started doing Internet, I had recourse to her again.
The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve begun to think that it might be a solution to the serious novel in our moment. It’s really hard to ask casual readers to pick up a one-off novel. A lot of the casual readers are adults who grew up reading Harry Potter, books that were multi-volume series. That’s actually what people want to read! They want to feel like each book counts beyond itself, and that there is some overlap or connection, some depth and weight beyond the individual book. That’s why people read 10,000 pages by George R.R. Martin, because even if it gets strange and incomprehensible by the last book, there’s still the weight of the characters growing through time, and you can’t get that through a one-off novel…
TM: It’s a common thing to video games and science fiction novels, right? This idea of world building?
JK: Right, and it used to be something that mainstream literary writers did all the time. It’s fallen out of fashion, but Salinger, Updike, and Vonnegut did it. When you think about works that have become inescapable fixtures of the post-war 20th century, so many of them featured reoccurring characters. So it seems to me that there’s something worthwhile that we can return to, and I don’t know why it’s fallen out of favor.
TM: I’ve been thinking about Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which is very entertaining for a novel about slavery and Jim Crow. But part of what makes the book so riveting is that every chapter takes you to a new decade and a new character, but every chapter is rooted in a world that she’s built, so that past characters continue to appear. That episodic dynamic is intriguing, and it’s something that’s key to the American literary heritage.
JK: Yeah, and it’s very odd that it’s receded into genre fiction. It really used to be a fixture of the culture.
TM: It feels like the pretentiousness of literary fiction strangling itself. God forbid literary fiction resembles George R.R. Martin…
JK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that sounds about right.
In case you’ve already moved into a doomsday bunker in backwoods Maine and can only check the news when you’re not stockpiling water purification tablets, cleaning your handgun, or mucking out the composting toilet, the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency proved to be a frightening, cruel, incompetent, and heartbreaking trainwreck.
Each passing day — replete with its frenzy of twisted executive orders; abusive phone calls with long-time allies; obsessive lying about inauguration crowd size; reality-show parade of inept and fascistic underlings; and deranged late-night tweets — brought fresh horrors that made it all but impossible to recall the fresh horrors of yesterday. Remember when Trump ordered the EPA to remove the climate change pages from its website? Remember that time Trump threatened to impose martial law in Chicago? Remember when Trump coordinated his response to North Korea’s missile test in front of a crowd of diners at Mar-a-Lago? Remember that time Trump failed to condemn the national spike in hate crimes, but got really upset at Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka’s accessories and clothing line?
While keeping up with a fast-moving autocrat bent on dismantling the free press and gutting democratic institutions is something new for most Americans, it’s business as usual for Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen — a long-time critic of Vladimir Putin and author of The Man Without a Face, The Brothers, and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.
As our Commander-in-Chief was about midway through his now infamous Fine-Tuned-Machine Press Conference, Gessen spoke with The Millions by phone about conspiracy theories, trauma psychology, nuclear holocaust, and life during the Trump Years.
The Millions: Can you please tell me what the hell is going on between Donald Trump and Russia. I mean there’s Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, his creepy admiration for Putin, Rex Tillerson is Secretary of State — and then this week alone Mike Flynn resigned, we learned that Trump campaign aides were talking to Russian intelligence, there’s a Russian naval ship 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut. Given your experience of Russian politics and knowledge of Putin, what do you think all of this means?
Masha Gessen: [Laughs.] I’m fundamentally opposed to conspiracy theories and I’m a proponent of the stupidity and incompetency of the world. I think that what’s going on is, so far, consistent with the stupidity and incompetency of the world. It’s possible that there’s a vast conspiracy to rig the American election and get Mike Flynn into the administration to lift sanctions, et cetera, et cetera. It’s very hard to believe that someone as, frankly, dumb as Mike Flynn and someone as incompetent as Vladimir Putin, and someone as equally as incompetent as—well, actually, someone even more incompetent, like Donald Trump, could have pulled off such a brilliantly divined, long-term operation. And until we see definitive evidence of that, I’m going to hold fast to that view. For another reason as well, which is that there’s plenty in plain view to make the situation unacceptable, unimaginable, frightening as hell.
What I think happened is that — and using the available information — Russia has a long-standing pattern and policy of disrupting elections in the Western world. They tried to do it during the Soviet period, they weren’t very good at it. Then they started doing it in the post-Soviet period. They weren’t that great at it either. What’s interesting about this is they weren’t good at it during the Soviet period because they didn’t have the slightest idea of how the Western world worked. What’s disturbing is that their idea as to how the world works hasn’t changed very much. It appears that the world has gotten closer to the way Russia thinks it works. There is a confluence of circumstances that is magical, that feels magical for Putin, that someone like Donald Trump has been elected president. I don’t think he was elected president because of Putin’s interference. He was elected president because Americans voted for him and because Americans have an archaic system for electing presidents and because America is a polarized country and because America has a broken system of political parties. And for all those reasons, and because right-wing populists like Donald Trump are basically irresistible. For all those reasons, America elected Trump.
And I think that Putin was very much on top of the world. At his annual press conference — and yes, annual press conference — he actually had a question asked of him, because it’s a scripted affair, so he had a question asked: how does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world. That’s very much how he’s feeling, or was feeling after the election. He’s already had a few unpleasant surprises. Sanctions haven’t actually been lifted. And it’s been a month…That points to the fact that there was no deal. But there were hopes and understandings on both sides. That is the reason for Russian’s current increase in aggression. And what Russia’s doing is aggression. It’s not invasion, it’s not acts of war. But it’s sort of reminding Trump of what Putin thought was a wide understanding that they were now going to sit down and divvy up the world. And Putin has been very clear about the fact that that’s what he wants America to do. He wants a Yalta number two, and that’s what he was expecting from Trump. And one last point on that: why is the United States not responding? Because it’s incompetent. Because it has an incompetent administration
TM: What do you think Putin thinks of Donald Trump? Sanctions that might be lifted or might not be lifted aside, does having Trump instead of Hillary Clinton in the White House impact Putin’s culture war against the West?
MG: Yes. Absolutely. Hillary Clinton in the White House was unimaginable. [Putin] personally hates her. He blames her for the protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012. Also, she’s a woman. It’s bad enough he has to deal with Merkel…At least that’s just Germany. It’s not the most powerful country in the world. And he thinks Trump is a buffoon. He’s made that very clear. When Trump thought Putin was saying that he was brilliant, he was actually saying that he was colorful, which is not much of a compliment. Putin is not the kind of guy who appreciates pure beauty in the world — and if he says something is colorful, you can bet that he’s not taking it seriously.
TM: Do you think Russia has a Donald Trump golden shower sex tape?
MG: This is the sort of thing that I’m very familiar with in Russia. Not in the sense of golden showers sex tapes—but I’ve seen lots of other sex tapes that I wish I hadn’t seen—but the believability standard of reporting. And the answer is, we don’t know. I can’t think anything about it because I don’t know. Facts are not a thing that you debate. It exists or it doesn’t. One thing that I will say, though, is that I can’t imagine — with the description of that tape that has been made available — how that could possibly serve as a tool of blackmail. [Trump] owned up to the grabbing-them-by-the-pussy tape and lost no traction with his electorate during a campaign.
TM: Trump and Putin are such different kinds of men. But when reading The Man Without a Face, I was struck by the number of times I underlined something that Putin had done or said and wrote “Trump!” in the margin. What do you think their unifying characteristics are, and how do you see the relationship playing out over four years?
MG: As it happens, I have list of nine similarities between Putin and Trump. Let me just focus on the ones that I can reel off the top of my head without looking at my notes. You’re right, they’re very, very different. They’re very different in affect, they’re very different in background. They’re very different in the way that they address the public. One uses raw emotion and the other actually prides himself on never betraying an emotion. And they inherited vastly different political systems and historical legacies. That said, they have a number of traits that are actually typical of autocrats and bullies — and they’re both bullies and they’re both autocrats…One huge one is the way that they lie. It’s taken Americans a while to understand how Trump lies. That he doesn’t lie in order to make you believe what he is saying. He lies in order to assert power over reality. And it’s basically a bully in the playground kind of stance: ‘I’m going to say that it’s not your hat that I’m wearing. What are you going to do about it?’ It’s the ‘What are you going to do about it?’ that’s always the message. And it’s always about power.
Another is their disdain for government as it had been constituted. And again this isn’t unique to Putin and Trump — Hannah Arendt described this in The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was a basic feature of the fascists who rose to power in Europe in the ’20s and ’30s, and certainly it was a basic feature of the Leninist revolution. When Trump said that he wanted to drain the swamp, he didn’t mean, I want to clean up American institutions so that they work better. He meant, American institutions are rotten to the core and they need to be destroyed. And you know, viewed through that lens, it suddenly makes sense that almost all of his cabinet appointments are basically people who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency that they are supposed to run. That’s not an accident. It’s a kind of nihilism that is typical of people like Putin and Trump…[When he said] drain the swamp, he meant just sweep the whole thing into the garbage and start over.
TM: In The Man Without a Face is you illustrate how quickly after coming to power Putin dismantled the independent media and democratic institutions in Russia. And we have Trump coming in, and he’s issuing all these executive orders that he may or may not have read, he’s talking about voter fraud, he’s making these awful appointments. How much damage do you think Trump can do to American democracy? And how quickly do you think he can do it?
MG: He can do an incredible amount of damage. I think, oddly, that the speed at which he has moved is actually a blessing because as fast as Putin was, his larger project actually took a long time. It took him a year to take over the media. It took him three years to dismantle the electoral mechanisms in a country that didn’t have a very strong media or very strong electoral mechanisms. So, he was methodical. But what I think is remarkable in terms of speed about Putin is that he started on day one and he wasted no time. But he moved methodically. Trump is not methodical, and this is one major difference between them…The fact that Trump hasn’t given us a second of normality is actually a blessing because it makes it easier to maintain a constant state of outrage. I keep waiting for the moment when people sit back and go, ‘Oh, okay. Well, this I can live with.’ It happens a little bit. I mean like Neil Gorsuch. Neal Gorsuch: this I can live with. As awful as he is politically, he’s not fundamentally opposed to the mission of the Supreme Court, which is what I was really afraid of. I was really afraid of a Peter Thiel or somebody on the Supreme Court. Except for those tiny, tiny specs of normality, we haven’t had a day when it’s like, ‘Phew, I can think about dinner.’
The psychological effect of that is devastating because it is a very good instrument of control. There’s a term that trauma psychologists use, and trauma psychology has its roots in studying totalitarian groups and totalitarian societies. They have a term: low-level dread…It’s a really important term because they view it as an instrument of control, because a person in a state of low-level dread can sort of function: can go to work, can get their children from daycare. But in that state, people lose their ability to plan for the future, which is an essential element of having human agency…It’s not all great that he’s moving so fast. Psychologically, it’s devastating. But I also think that it may be good for the future of our institutions because it’s so plain what’s happening. And it does maintain a state of mobilization among those who are resisting.
TM: You told Samantha Bee that your greatest fear about the Trump administration was nuclear holocaust. That actually seems pretty reasonable. How do you see that playing out, and why is that a possibility Americans should take seriously?
MG: You asked me how I see the relationship between Trump and Putin playing out. I don’t see it playing out very well. What we’re already seeing is Putin basically saying to Trump, ‘Look, I expected better.’ And these are two men with short tempers, with vengefulness as one of their main motivators, with masculinity issues, with their fingers on the nuclear button, and with no controls over when they push it. That’s what makes it a real possibility.
TM: You wrote in The New York Times recently about how much of the conversation about Trump has been focused on arguing over what is factual and what is not, at the expense of engaging in discussions that are essential to democracy. What should those discussions look like, and are they happening anywhere?
MG: We need to focus much more closely on the nominations. Some of that has happened. Not enough has happened. We sort of breezed past the fact that most of these nominees bypassed the ethics checks, because so much else is going on. And it’s this disorientating cacophony that keeps us from getting focused on one thing. I think we’re back down the rabbit hole of investigating the Russia connection. There’s nothing wrong with investigating the Russia connection. But the Russia connection, even in the extremely unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence — and at most it can produce conclusive evidence of collusion, it can’t ever produce conclusive evidence of the results of that collusion — even in the unlikely event that it produces conclusive evidence of collusion, it’s extremely unlikely that it would depose Trump, which I think is everybody’s hope. I think the magical thinking here is, ‘Oh, let’s investigate Russia. We’ll find out that Trump really is a Russian puppet. And then he goes and then this national nightmare is over.’ The chances of that are almost zero.
I would turn attention to what he is doing to agencies, what else is going on with immigration and the ICE raids all over the country…What’s actually happening in this country. We were focused for about three seconds on what’s happening with the National Parks and environmental agencies, and that feels like ancient history, doesn’t it? But that’s the kind of reversal of the fundamental mission of the agency that we’re probably going to see all over the place.
TM: If you had to give the American people one piece of advice on how to survive the next four to eight years, what would that be?
MG: Remember the future. There will be a time after Trump, and we have to keep remembering that — not just because it gives us hope, but because it’s essential to not do anything to undermine that future. There’re some disturbing things that have happened over the last few months, like the calls for the electoral college to vote against Trump, which I thought was just absurdly shortsighted. You can’t establish precedent of breaking a system if you’re planning to have another presidential election sometime.
I’m really disturbed by psychiatrists who have now, on several occasions, stepped forward and said let’s get this guy out of office because that’s our professional opinion. I’m old enough to remember when being queer was a psychopathology. And I don’t want psychiatrists deciding who is normal enough to be leading this country. Even if this guy is patently insane, that can’t be the reason we get him out of office.
And finally, the current situation with Flynn, which is unfolding through leaks from intelligence agencies, which are by definition unsubstantiated. That’s the sort of thing that has gotten this country in trouble in the past. It’s gotten a lot of other countries in trouble. In the history of the 20th century, a few countries were probably done a favor by their uniformed services who carried out pro-democratic coups — but we have to be clear that that’s the fire that we’re playing with. Once you start following the lead of anonymous sources in intelligence agencies who release the information that is useful to them and that serves their cause and expect you to proceed on blind trust, we’re in potential military coup territory. That’s also not a great way to get rid of Trump.
You don’t need me to tell you that 2016 was a horribly misbehaved cat of a year, careening after poltergeists, tearing up the furniture, and generally knocking over the usually steady water glasses of your soul. The tumult didn’t leave me with as much space for reading as I would have liked. I suspect I’m not alone in that.
The upside is that the books I did manage to read, the ones that briefly unscrambled my brain, stuck in my mind a bit better this year than they would in most. It’s only a small blessing, but you can’t have everything.
I try, mostly, when I am not being paid to read something, to read only old books. Books born before 1990, for example. Time has a way of sifting out much of the crap that humanity publishes. What’s left are only the more interesting artifacts of what writers are writing, some books more successful at being art than others. Plus: old books remind you that we have been through bad things before, and will go through bad things again, and we will live through the tiny interstitial moments of joy that we get in dark times. Not because it is fair, but because we have to.
I am not talking about famous famous books, per se. I tend to pick up odd little artifacts just for the hell of it. For example, in September I ended up with a copy of Calvin Trillin’s Killings, at the suggestion of a friend and by the good graces of the folks at Abebooks. (Though now out of print, mercifully the book will reappear in a Kindle edition sometime this April.) This is a book of Trillin’s articles about random murders around the country, all filed as New Yorker pieces in the 1960s and 1970s, during the tenure of William Shawn, who believed in letting writers do what they loved.
“Reporters love murders,” Trillin writes. He is right. But not all reporters can write them up the way Trillin can. These stores all have the kind of careful narrative construction you don’t see much of anymore, not in the sprawling “investigations” of a Serial or a Making a Murderer. Trillin believes in beginnings and middles, though not in clear-cut Hollywood endings, which is something that was on my mind when I did some of my own murder reporting. The lack of an ending is starting to haunt me a bit, if I’m honest. I am beginning to wonder if anything is ever really, truly over.
In a single evening in May, at a point in my life where I was beginning to wonder if my attention span would ever return to me, I consumed the whole of Poets in Their Youth, Eileen Simpson’s memoir of, among other things, being married to John Berryman. Spoiler: he was a difficult man. I had read bits of the book before, in service of other research projects, but never had I sat down to read through the whole thing. It was delightful.
Fair warning: I am more susceptible than the average person to the intrigues of mid-century-poet gossip. I like them, even the drunk, dissolute, and occasionally abusive ones: in between royally fucking up, they seemed to be doing such meaningful work. They were not constantly publishing, of course, but also they were not tweeting. They were not debating the end of tweeting. They were not participating in whatever passes for the “cultural conversation” at all. Instead, they were trying to live lives that allowed them to write whatever the fuck they wanted. This, I have decided, should be a mission statement for me going forward in 2017. I am trying to make arrangements for the freedom to write what I really mean to write.
Which brings me to Hannah Arendt. I spent a good chunk of this year completing a book manuscript for which Hannah Arendt is something like an organizing principle. So for most of the year, I had her entire body of work at my side. Obviously she is a popular choice right now. People on Twitter claim to be reading her constantly, though sometimes it looks like they’re just scanning for quotes to tweet, particularly quotes from The Origins of Totalitarianism or Eichmann in Jerusalem.
But rather than tell you about the content of Arendt’s arguments — some of which map onto our current moment better than others — I want to make an observation about the attitude that underwrote all of them.
To brutally oversimplify her for a moment (and sweep all the arguments about the factual underpinnings of her arguments in Eichmann aside): Arendt worried most, in authoritarian regimes, about people who could not think. Thinking, for her, was both a function of intellect and a quality of attention. It was not mere ordinary stupidity. She had, in her lifetime, watched both very stupid people and very smart ones fall prey to the delusions and lies. She had known some pretty dark times. But still, she’d write in the preface for one of her books, that she believed:
That even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…
Pulled out of context, that also seems to me a brilliant reason to keep reading in a time that threatens to upend almost everything the world thought it knew about itself.
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Laura and I began 2016 with a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and though I can’t think of a better place to initiate a new life to go along with your new year — what other city is as amenable to Americans’ obsessive sense of self-mythology and cyclical renewal? — I always forget how profoundly strange Los Angeles is, particularly in the winter. The very qualities that make it America’s chosen stage on which to mount the drama of self-creation also make it a site of a profound dislocation. Swaddled year-round in warmth and light, you imagine yourself to be moving through a perpetual present; there’s always time to begin again, to wake up and do things better, to manufacture yourself anew. Time is a renewable resource, plentiful as sunshine. The sky looks like someone’s taken the roof off the world and the city itself stretches on ecstatically, looking like someone jammed a bunch of buildings together with great enthusiasm but little forethought.
You can abide all this for a few months until you actually are moving through a perpetual present in which the seasons at best mark infinitesimal variations in light and warmth and the palm trees are always swaying gently, imperceptibly, maddeningly to and fro like faulty metronomes. This isn’t to say that time is static. No, it dilates and contracts according to the whims of traffic; a trip that took you 20 minutes one day takes you an hour the next. You reminisce about an episode in your life as if it took place a year ago, only to find that three years have elapsed. Henry James disparaged certain giant 19th-century novels without a sense of composition as loose, baggy monsters. One would be hard-pressed to find a better way of describing Los Angeles itself; reverence for the accidental and arbitrary is its operating principle.
I like reading books that honor this reverence rather than treat it as a problem to be solved, ones that don’t try to depict the city so much as appropriate its flux. These books tend towards nothing more than a continual confounding, an arabesque that turns the failure to find composition into something interesting.
In January, serendipity brought me one such book. Laura and I ducked into Skylight Books in Los Feliz and loitered in the fiction section until an attractive, slender little gray volume attracted our eyes — Jarett Kobek’s BTW. The novel follows an unnamed, overeducated, literary young man who flees New York in the wake of a failed relationship, chronicling his attempt to — what else? — restart his life in contemporary Los Angeles He consorts with a cast of distinctly Southern Californian weirdoes who seem to be always high, drunk, weeping, or some combination of the three. The narrative is one of those aforementioned arabesques: we accompany Kobek’s characters as they sit in cafes, drink in bars, get sick at parties, read books, make scant progress on artistic projects, and try their hardest to navigate out of romantic cul-de-sacs. Imagine The Day of the Locust updated so that it encompasses the travails of interracial dating, celebrity worship, and college debt, among other topics. It’s a wonderfully observed novel about Los Angeles because one detects the presence of a mind actively wrestling with the city’s strangeness, rather than drawing from cultural stereotypes.
It doesn’t hurt that Kobek’s language is impossibly precise, imbued with a crystalline quality, so that when he describes something like the Grand Central Market you don’t just feel the pang of familiarity that any good novel generates, the sense that the author is in your head; you feel like you’re seeing something clearly for the first time. And while Kobek’s acerbic humor (on even more impressive display in anti-tech polemic I Hate the Internet, another of my year’s highlights) is what initially caught my attention, it’s the depth of Kobek’s feeling that haunted me when I finished the novel. BTW is a stinging social satire, but all that humor supports a sensitive evocation of what it feels like to live your mid- to late-20s in an era of ever-accelerating social fragmentation, in a city that reifies such fragmentation.
In those conditions, it’s no wonder Angelenos have developed any number of idiosyncratic practices to ground themselves. To outsiders these practices might seem exorbitant or silly, but they arise out of the starkest necessity. To prevent putting your head through your car window one day as you lurch through the city, you seize upon something, anything that might give your year a shape. When I read Eve Babitz’s glamorously lethargic nonfiction collection Slow Days, Fast Company, which NYRB Classics reissued this past summer, I felt like she understood this. Babitz chronicles a different time than Kobek’s novel, a decade when gas was relatively cheap and writers mingled with models and actors. She and her friends don’t live off much more than spurts of money from family, lovers, or the occasional gig, but they live well anyway, impulsively snorting cocaine, popping Quaaludes, and driving around Southern California as if everything between Palm Springs and Bakersfield were Los Angeles. Sometimes they work, but mostly they gossip and self-medicate. This book is a perpetual motion machine whose elliptic form elides what a canny chronicler of the human mind Babitz is. Her prose is as psychologically savvy as Joan Didion’s, but considerably more playful. Didion looked on her hometown’s surface frivolity and found an apocalyptic lack of substance and order. Babitz looks on the same and finds an aesthetic opportunity.
Nathaniel Mackey’s multivolume epistolary novel From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate — currently at four volumes and counting — hooked me for the same reason. The novel takes the form of letters written by a L.A. jazz musician known only as “N.” to a mysterious figure named the Angel of Dust, wherein he holds forth on everything from slavery’s legacy to the etymology of the word “oboe.” There are some loosely constructed narratives floating around these volumes (sometimes ghosts emanate from record players, or speech bubbles expand from saxophones, for example) but mostly Mackey is content to let alliteration, rhyme, and copious punning propel the novel forward. I was particularly in love with the third volume, Atet A.D., which constructs an entire storyline out of the fact that one character plays an oboe, a word derived from the French “hautbois,” or “high wood,” which another character later misrecognizes as “high would.” Highbrow hijinks ensue. In this way, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, Mackey emulates both jazz improvisation and L.A.’s love of the accidental. The effect is a text that detaches language from the need to communicate anything at all other than beauty, in the hopes that beauty might teach us how to exist in solidarity with one another. This is the kind of writing that reorganizes thought patterns and social relations.
There was so much else that I read and loved this year. Zero K delighted me despite the fact that at this point Don DeLillo seems set on self-parody. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing was addictive, employing a narrative structure that has the same effect as a binge-worthy TV show; it doesn’t hurt that Gyasi has sharp observations on black diaspora and slavery’s echo. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is a bizarre delight, heart wrenching without being sentimental or cloying. The Underground Railroad is a neo-slave narrative whose speculative fiction elements force us to confront slavery’s lingering horror. Tim Murphy’s Christodora is a sensitive and searching epic that chronicles the social effects of AIDS across several decades. And Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is an inspiring debut that undermines its own title: nothing belongs to us, because we are so thoroughly enmeshed with others.
Looking back on my year in reading from the precipice of a Donald Trump presidency, I feel a strange bit of cognitive dissonance, a friction between the great pleasure that characterized my reading life, and the thickening sense of fear at what awaits us on January 20th. Against the backdrop of the totalitarian impulse that Trump represents, such pleasure feels exorbitant. But I also wonder if such exorbitance can be a form of resistance. It puts us in more attentive relation to the people and environments in which we’re enmeshed.
To close the year out, I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s indispensableThe Origins of Totalitarianism. Early on, she makes a point that clarifies the nature of the threat looming over our nation: “Totalitarian politics — far from being simply anti-Semitic or racist or imperialist or communist — use and abuse their own ideological and political elements until the basis of factual reality, from which the ideologies originally derived their strength and their propaganda value …have all but disappeared.” Totalitarian politics want to estrange us from lived experience, from the fact that we’re wrapped up in and with others. My year in reading taught me that such immersion is what we must fight hardest for.
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