When I was in graduate school, a professor introduced me to a documentary called The Century of the Self. Directed by BBC journalist Adam Curtis, it follows the rise of modern public relations, whose Austrian inventor, Edward Bernays, exploited Americans’ innate self-centeredness to sell us on everything from psychoanalysis to cigarettes. It’s an eye-opening piece of work, and one I used to rewatch once or twice a year. Last time I did though, it occurred to me that it might not be all that relevant. Because we aren’t living in the century of the self at all anymore, but the century of the crowd. It would be easy, I guess, to argue that the self is still ascendant since social media gives people more ways to think about themselves than ever. But a hashtag can’t go viral with just one user, nobody cares about an Instagram photo no one likes, and does a YouTube video that doesn’t get watched even exist? Even as users do the self-focused work of updating LinkedIn profiles and posting on Twitter and Facebook, they do it in the service of belonging, at the back of everyone’s minds, an ever-present audience whose attention they need if their efforts aren’t to be wasted. In his new book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer argues that this shift from individual to collective thinking is nowhere more evident than in the way we create and consume media on the Internet. Because tech companies like Facebook and Google make money off the sale of our personal data to advertisers, they depend on the attention of the masses to survive. And because their algorithms shape much of what we see online, it’s to their benefit to coerce us into thinking of ourselves not as individuals but as members of groups. “The big tech companies,” Foer writes, “Propel us to join the crowd—they provide us with the trending topics and their algorithms suggest that we read the same articles, tweets, and posts as the rest of the world.” Foer started his journalism career in the late '90s as a writer for Slate when it was still owned by Microsoft. He edited The New Republic twice, from 2006 to 2010 and later, in 2012, after it was purchased by millennial billionaire and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. The year Foer first joined TNR, only college students could have Facebook accounts, the iPhone hadn’t yet been released, and the Internet still represented an opportunity for democratization, where a small website could attract a self-selecting group of readers simply by producing well-written articles about interesting things. Today, there are two billion people on Facebook, which is also where most people get their news. Media organizations have adjusted accordingly, prioritizing stories that will travel widely online. Foer resigned from TNR shortly after Hughes announced he wanted to run the magazine like a startup. He uses the contentious end of his tenure there to make the case that news organizations desperate for traffic have given in too easily to the demands of big tech, selling out their readership in the pursuit of clicks and advertising dollars. The end result of this kind of corruption is sitting in the White House right now. “Trump,” the subject of thousands of sensationalist headlines notable primarily for their clickability, “began as Cecil the Lion, and then ended up president of the United States.” Foer, of course, is writing about this topic from a position of relative privilege. He rose in his field before journalists relied on Twitter to promote their work. His career-making job was at a publication that has, more than once, made headlines for fostering an environment of racism and misogyny and a system of exclusion that may have facilitated his own way to the top. In late 2017, news about the sexual misconduct of his influential friend, TNR culture editor Leon Wieseltier, spread widely and quickly on Twitter and Facebook. Perhaps aware even as he was writing that he was not in the position to launch an unbiased critique, Foer chooses to aim his polemic at the people who run large online platforms and not at the platforms themselves. Foer doesn’t want Facebook to stop existing, but he does want greater government regulation and better antitrust legislation. He wants a Data Protection Authority, like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to manage big tech’s sale of our personal data. He wants increased awareness on the part of the public of the monopolies Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google represent. He wants everyone to start reading novels again. And he wants news organizations to implement paywalls to protect their integrity, rather than depending on traffic for revenue. While I agree that reading fiction is one of the only ways any of us are going to survive this era with our minds intact, implementing subscription fees to save journalism sounds like suggesting everyone go back to horse-drawn carriages to end climate change. Foer dismisses the dictum “Information Wants to be Free” as “a bit of nineties pabulum,” but he’s wrong; If we put up blocks against information online in the form of paywalls, it’s going to find a way around them like a river around a poorly built dam. [millions_ad] We’re not going to go back to the way things were before, and if anything, the Internet’s information economy is going to carve out a wider and wider swath in our brains. Subscriptions work for The New Yorker and The New York Times in part because they come with built-in audiences old enough to remember when paying for information was the best way to get it. People might pay monthly fees for subscriptions to Stitch Fix and Netflix, but this model won't sustain itself in a world full of readers who expect good writing not to cost anything. Foer also has a higher opinion of human willpower in the face of massively well-funded efforts to dismantle, divert, and repurpose it than I do. I don’t know if the founders of Google and the big social media platforms always knew it would be possible to turn their user bases into billions of individual nodes ready to transmit information—via tweets, texts, posts, and status updates—at the expense of all their free time, but they do now. Our phones and our brains exist in a symbiotic relationship that is only going to intensify as time passes. As Foer himself notes, “We’ve all become a bit cyborg.” The more addicted we are, the longer we spend online, the more data we give big technology companies to sell, the less incentive they have to change. We aren’t in a position to go offline, because online is where our families, our friends, and our jobs are. Tech companies have the lobbying power, financial means, and captive audiences necessary to ensure that the stimulus-reward loops they offer never have to stop. Media organizations that take advantage of these weaknesses will grow, while those that put up pay walls, adding friction to the user experience, will wither and die. As a writer at Slate and an editor at the New Republic, Foer was a member of the generation that helped put in place the framework of a media industry whose flaws he’s railing against. He’s unlikely to be the person who fixes it. And just as Foer can’t solve the problems inherent in an industry he helped build, big tech companies aren’t going to remedy the problems they’ve brought about. Not because they don’t want to (though, why would they?) but because for the most part, the people running these companies can’t see the full picture of what they’ve done. In an interview with Axios’s Mike Allen, Facebook CFO Sheryl Sandberg demonstrated little remorse at the role Facebook played in facilitating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election via fake campaign ads. “A lot of what we allow on Facebook is people expressing themselves,” Sandberg said. “When you allow free expression, you allow free expression, and that means you allow people to say things that you don't like and that go against your core beliefs. And it's not just content—it's ads. Because when you're thinking about political speech, ads are really important.” In the universe where Sandberg lives, our problems—which include a president poised to start a war for the sake of his ego—are her problems only in so much as they damage her company’s ability to accept money from whomever it wants. In late 2017, Twitter, Facebook, and Google were all called upon to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Some members of Congress want a bill requiring big tech companies to disclose the funding source for political ads. Facebook and Twitter announced new internal policies regulating transparency. But how well these regulations will be enforced is unknown, and, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine a world in which insanely well-capitalized companies steeped in the libertarian ethos of Silicon Valley let rules get in the way of “innovation.” One of the best chapters in World Without Mind involves the coming of what Foer calls the Big One, “the inevitable mega-hack that will rumble society to its core.” Foer writes that the Big One will have the potential to bring down our financial infrastructure, deleting fortunes and 401Ks in the blink of an eye and causing the kind of damage to our material infrastructure that could lead to death. Big tech can see the Big One coming, and is bracing for it, taking lessons from the example set by the banks during the economic collapse of 2008. They’re lawyering up and harnessing resources to make sure they’ll make it through. We, the users whose fortunes will have been lost, whose data will have been mishandled and who will have potentially suffered grave bodily harm as the result of this mega-hack, won’t fare so well. This prediction brings to mind another recent book about the current state of technology, Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. Ullman also denounces the dismantling of journalism as we know it by social media. “Now,” she writes, “without leaving home, from the comfort of your easy chair, you can divorce yourself from the consensus on what constitutes ‘truth.’” Ullman, like Foer, blames these platforms for the election of President Trump, calling Twitter the perfect agent of disintermediation, “designed so that every utterance could be sent to everyone, going over the heads of anyone in between.” But she veers from Foer’s pronouncement that unregulated tech companies are going to be the death of intellectual culture as we know it. Describing San Francisco, where she lives, she notes the failure of more and more startups, the financial struggles of LinkedIn before its sale to Microsoft, the mass exodus of investors from Twitter, and Uber’s chronic struggles to reach profitability. Life in Code was written before Snapchat went public, but Ullman predicts correctly that it won’t go very well. “The privileged millennial generation has bet its future on the Internet,” Ullman writes. “I wonder if they know the peril and folly of that bet.” Ullman, a programmer, lived through the first tech collapse. Now, she writes, conditions are ripe for a second fall. “The general public has been left standing on the sidelines, watching the valuations soar into the multibillions of dollars, their appetites whetted: they, too, want to get into the game. I fear that on the IPOs, the public will rush in to buy, as was true in 2000.” These two dark visions of America’s future–one in which big tech brings about the end of society as we know it, and one in which it crashes under its own weight—both lead to similar outcomes: CEOs take their payouts and head to their secret underground bunkers in the desert while those on the outside get left holding the bag. Both potential endings also point to a precipice that we, as a society, are fast approaching, a sense that the ground is ready to fall out from beneath us at any time. “There has never been an epoch that did not feel itself to be ‘modern,’” Walter Benjamin writes in the Arcades Project, “and did not believe itself to be standing directly before an abyss.” Thanks to climate change, Donald Trump’s perpetual nonsense, the rise of white supremacist hate groups, and the mass shootings and terror attacks that pepper the headlines each day, it’s hard not to feel as if that we’re all alive at the start of a dawning apocalypse. And maybe that’s because we are. But the end that’s coming will not be all encompassing. “The ‘modern,’’’ Benjamin also wrote, “is as varied in its meaning as the different aspects of one and the same kaleidoscope.” In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, historian Yuval Noah Harari outlines the Dataist hypothesis that human beings are algorithms, elements of a massive global data processing system, the output of which was always destined to be a better, more efficient data processing system. “Human experiences are not sacred and Homo Sapiens isn’t the apex of creation,” Harari writes. “Humans are merely tools.” The endpoint of our current evolutionary trajectory, some researchers hypothesize, could look like a series of non-biological networks capable of communicating, rebuilding, repairing, and reproducing new versions of themselves without us. Harari points to theories that suggest we’ve always been headed towards that point, that it has always been what was supposed to happen, that we’re only one step in a process longer and more far-reaching than we can possibly imagine. It’s those enterprising entrepreneurs willing to exploit our connectivity-inclined, data-processing inner natures who stand to profit most from humanity’s current evolutionary moment. In a recent feature in New York about Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s former ghost writer Kate Losse, trying to remember Facebook’s “first statement of purpose,” recalls her boss saying often, “I just want to create information flow.” Where Curtis’s PR executives in Century of the Self exploited our innate selfishness for their own gain, the Zuckerbergs of the world cash in on our uncontrollable impulse to share information. An impulse that, according to Harari, might be leading, even now, to the development of an entity that, in its pursuit of greater networking capability, will absorb human biology then leave it behind. It sounds, I know, like science fiction. But, 15 years ago, so did Snapchat, Facebook, and the iPhone. Right now, the tide seems to be turning against tech. Last year, New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo promoted a series of articles on the monopoly power of Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. The Guardian published a story about Facebook and Google employees safeguarding themselves against the addictive properties of the platforms they helped create. Cathy O’Neil’s look at the algorithms that shape the Internet, Weapons of Math Destruction, was shortlisted in 2016 for a National Book Award. Following closely on these reports, of course, have come the inevitable accusations of alarmism from technologists and the people who love them. Where that discourse will lead is hard to say. One of the central question authors like Foer, O’Neil, Ullman, and Manjoo seem to want to raise is this: What will our legacy be? Will we be known for having set in place the foundations for a tech industry beholden to its users’ well being? Or will we be a blip, the last people who believed in an Internet capable of bringing about a brave new world, before everything changed? Benjamin is correct that all generations harbor an anxiety that theirs will be the last to grace the Earth before the world ends. But no generation has been so far, and ours probably won’t be either. And so to this question, I would add another: What will rise from whatever we build then leave behind? Because for better or for worse, something will.
It’s a care, a real care, when a writer whose work you love takes on a project like a seasonal quartet. The potential for readerly woe is plain: four novels forced into a form already replete with corny allegories and tired themes. Ali Smith begins her seasonal quartet of novels with Autumn, followed by, of course, Winter. She doesn’t dump those most tired of themes—decay and death. She jumps right into them. Autumn opens: It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. Her Autumn and Winter do indeed fall apart; they unravel. They were never tightly constructed in the first place. Autumn and Winter are no more neatly plotted than life itself; like human life, they are constructed of stories. Ali Smith’s seasons are chockfull of other bookish treats and tricks: wordplay in a myriad of forms; luscious, textured prose; allusions galore; shifting points of view; characters who seem to jump right out of Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare and our own circles of friends and family. At times, all these goodies threaten to tumble us into a literary junk shop, but Smith exerts a literary master’s superb confidence in her readers; she trusts us to make of her glorious mess the novels she wants us to read. The three stanzas of John Keats’s poem “To Autumn,” lend Autumn its three sections: summer’s departure, fall’s transformations, winter’s threshold. Departures, transformations, thresholds: Autumn’s people move and metamorphose in the most dramatic ways we humans know: growing up and dying. Elisabeth, the book’s female protagonist, grows from child to woman, a metamorphosis conveyed in a collage of memory and the book’s present time. Her intellectual and sentimental education is shaped by Daniel, a vital old man who befriends her as a child and teaches her how to see, deeply and subversively, art and literature. Her love for her old friend metamorphoses from that of a father-hungry child, into unrequited quasi-romantic adolescent devotion, into a mature love no less profound for being unspoken; it ripens as Daniel lies semi-comatose in a nursing home bed. With Elisabeth in vigil, Daniel’s dying dreams pare his past to essentials: he forgets the name of his beloved, Holocaust-dead sister but remembers her brilliance and that she called him “summer brother.” His memories both fall away and become evergreen; he dreams he’s a green man, rejuvenated yet unalive, helplessly mythic. Meanwhile, his and Elisabeth’s land metamorphoses, not so much under the seasonal round as from climate change, and Britain unravels, Brexit both symptom and result. By winter, in Winter, things have finished falling apart. They’re dead. Right at the start, Winter says so: God was dead: to begin with. And romance was dead. Chivalry was dead. Poetry, the novel, painting, they all were dead, art was dead…. The dead continue in a fabulous list: heaps of culture, isms, social institutions, electronics, sentiments, dead; yes, dead with few exceptions, all the way through to love. Flowers are dead…. Of course flowers are dead. It’s winter. Except, says this listmaker, an omniscient who pops in now and then throughout the book: Imagine being haunted by the ghost of a flower. No, imagine being haunted (if there were such a thing as being haunted, rather than just neurosis or psychosis) by the ghost (if there were such a thing as ghosts, rather than just imagination) of a flower. Right away, the narrator slyly disclaims any possibility that this is to be a ghost story: "forget ghosts, put them right out of your mind." Winter’s two protagonists, a mother and her son, are haunted by memories they don’t always remember, and by people they loved and failed to love. And yes, by the ghost of a flower: a rose bud, dead and gone for centuries, whose impression pressed into a Shakespeare folio lives as a shapely ghost of the flower. [millions_ad] Sophia lives not as she wishes, not in "a story that’s thoughtful, dignified, conventional in structure thank God, the kind of quality literary fiction where the slow drift of snow across the landscape is merciful, has a perfect muffling decorum of its own," but trapped within a wasteland of her own making, literally wasted by paranoia-induced self-starvation, spiritually wasted by her own systematic rejection of those who would love her most: son, sister, and lover. Sophia’s son Art authors a twee and fairly popular blog, Art in Nature. He tweets to a fairly sizable following. But in a breakup battle royal, his girlfriend destroys his laptop and hacks his Twitter account; her departure severs a good part of his identity. He hires Lux, a young woman he meets at a bus stop, to pose as his freshly ex-girlfriend on his Christmas visit to Sophia. (Lux, an immigrant from Croatia by way of Canada, is engaging but rather boilerplate: the downtrodden outsider, canny and kind, who magically appears to help and heal and astonish with flashes of erudition a family privileged but benighted and emotionally needy.) When Art and Lux arrive at Sophia’s, her physical and mental deterioration prompts Lux to insist that Art call Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Iris, nicknamed Ire, rushes to the house to perform what therapists would call an intervention. Family assembled. Let the holidays begin. The Christmas family dinner is just as awful as any you’ve ever sat through, stomach clenched on the congealing feast. People (the adults) drink. A fight erupts. Mean and mean-spirited things are said, both laughable and devastating. A revelation (not a skeleton-in-closet type secret, more the awkward clunk of a psychological veil falling off) brings a gut-shot truce: silence. In the silence, Art: He now knows he never wants to see another Christmas Day again. What he longs for instead, as he sits at the food-strewn table, is winter, winter itself. He wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it…. For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it. But winter’s not performing: it’s the warmest on record and no snow will fall to sheathe the woods and cover up Art’s troubles along with his troublesome relatives. And himself. For in Winter, in winter, under the force of family dead, living or absent, masks slip on and masks slip off. Memory reveals and conceals the past. Art, too (arty art, as Elisabeth’s mother says in Autumn—not Art, though he does too) reveals and conceals. Autumn and Winter center on the works of two real-life artists, both of whom are dead. In Autumn, it’s Pauline Boty, an English pop artist who died in 1966 at age 28, and whose mostly forgotten works are undergoing a revival. Daniel, who knew Boty, describes one of her works to 11-year-old Elisabeth. Then: What do you think? Daniel said. I like the idea of the blue and the pink together, Elisabeth said. Pink lace. Deep blue pigment, Daniel said. I like that you could maybe touch the pink, if it was made of lace, I mean, and it would feel different from the blue. Oh, that’s good, Daniel said. That’s very good. What does Daniel want? Elisabeth’s mother demands. Why would a man more than 70 years old befriend a little girl? No one can answer that, Daniel least of all. Maybe he wants a daughter to teach, or maybe he longs to open the eyes of his long-dead little sister. He must want to relive his love for Boty, an affair no more physical than his relationship with Elisabeth. Both man and girl want and need what we all want and need: a true friend. As Daniel says on meeting Elisabeth: The lifelong friends, he said. Sometimes we wait a lifetime for them. Ali Smith’s treatment of Boty and her work could be called Feminism 101: the objectification of our bodies, the ignorance, intentional or careless, by critics and academics concerning our works, the dismissal of us as artists. (“Feminism 101” is not a slight or sneer. We all keep flunking Feminism 101, and we all need to keep taking it, over and over, until we learn it.) Winter’s central artist, Barbara Hepworth, who died in 1975 at age 72, worked in stone, cold, hard stone sculpted into the softest forms, rounded, caressable, often shaped as that most tender icon of our iconography: mother and child. In Feminist 101 terms, Hepworth was more the exception than the rule, one of the few renowned female artists of her time. One of Hepworth’s works, or what seems to be part of a work, takes on life as a disembodied child’s head that Sophia sees floating near her. The contact is both delusional and beautifully fulfilling, for Sophia’s evolving hallucinations of the stone “head” follow the trajectory of her own memories and needs and loves. She’s not a good mother; like most mothers, she’s the mother she is. Or she’s the woman she is, at different times. She’s the mother of a gentle, sensitive boy. She’s a woman in love with a man who looked at her through a holly wreath and owned a Hepworth sculpture. She’s a business woman for whom djellabas and Afghan coats, stuff beloved by her sister’s dope-smoking friends, are no more than trendy wares to buy and to sell at the highest markup she can get. Both Autumn’s Elisabeth and Winter’s Sophia embrace art, but whereas Elisabeth takes a more political, intellectual route, Sophia literally embraces her artifact as a memento of lost love: the lover, face framed in evergreen, who gave her the most blissful days of her life, the child she never could embrace, “a squalling, appalling dark night of the soul.” Save for a few, select, painful and blissful memories, the past for Sophia means no more than her shedful of faux-aged trinkets (the detritus of her closed-down business). Sophia yearns for a clean, featureless beauty, without story, unpeopled, with no possibility of fiction and its cheats. She accuses her sister Iris of “myth-making.” Iris is happy to make story. Sophia’s austere, ideal Beauty doesn’t concern her much. She cares for the human—humans—whether in art or politics. When Art texts her to ask the difference between politics and art, she replies: the diff dear Neph is more betwn artist and politician—endlss enemies coz they both knw THE HUMAN will alwys srface in art no mtter its politics, & THE HUMAN wll hv t be absent or repressed in mst politics no mtter its art x Ire. Art himself is trapped in the middle. He dreams of being chased by giant flowers, metamorphosing into a stone knight so they can’t eat him. Sheltered in stone—oops! he’s captured in stone. He’s become stone. Inert under the accusations of his anima/ex-girlfriend (“dead, she said, like your political soul”), he whines: Stop bullying me. I am political. It’s pathetic. Look at you, all mouth and stamen. Look at me, stiff as a stone. What would Freud say about this dream? Smith leaves it to us to imagine what Freud would say: devouring females and the paradox of stones: a never-alive mineral, a man’s generative parts. Paradox and puns are not dead. Autumn doesn’t draw Winter’s sharp line between living and dead. The season is, after all, as Keats put it, “season of mellow fruitfulness.” Boty’s work is of paper and cloth, Hepworth’s of stone. In the underworld of dreams, Autumn’s old man Daniel is trapped inside a pine; Winter’s young man Art is locked in stone. Autumn sheds summer’s dress of green gently, passively. Winter is hard ice and death. Not to say that Autumn holds autumn blameless. After things fall apart, winter’s unmasking is all the more brutal, all the more essential, its potential all the more thrilling. One of Winter’s ambiguous narrators—maybe it’s Iris story-telling to the child Art, maybe it’s Art mansplaining that story to Lux—tells a tale of a child captured by the god of winter. But don’t worry. Because the child shoots through that underworld like hot blood through the veins of every cold dead person who grew up to be lost in the snow, and there are millions of them, and the child passes like warm blood through them all and what the child is seeing when it does is pure colour, the colour green, Christmas green, green at its brightest, because green isn’t just a summer colour after all, no, green’s a winter colour too. What’s implied: But the child won’t be able to melt the ice, if we don’t get any ice at all. Climate change threatens Autumn’s green man and Winter’s ice god alike; it threatens to extinguish the seasons themselves. Yet here Smith’s novels thin out, not because of the dreaded seasonal conceits, but because they verge on preachy. Brexit, climate change, Donald Trump and his followers, nuclear saber rattling, hard-hearted immigration policies, pollution: all are issues vital to the characters (and us), whether we demand change or justify the status quo, but at times the author’s concerns nearly smother the characters’ concerns, and the books become, at moments, just for moments, Ali Smith’s bully pulpits. Maybe that’s exactly right. If Shakespeare’s Prospero (who looms large in Autumn) can break through the fourth wall to beg life-giving applause, why shouldn’t a novelist engage her readers in a worthy cause? Smith’s skill is to make us realize how much we miss the seasonal treasures cherished by the children of autumn and winter: the ponds and canals that used to freeze over and we’d get out our skates, the balmy gift of an Indian summer interrupting late fall’s death-grip chill. And it’s not as if she and her characters ignore the tension between art-making and activism; art as beauty versus art as message; art versus artist. Art versus reality, for that matter. Autumn’s Daniel owns that, for him, love is “how eyes that aren’t yours let you see where you are, who you are.” He’s stuck seeing his reflection in the eyes of his beloved, rather than the beloved itself—herself. Winter’s Art, too, is in love with the image—of himself, of his ex-girlfriend, of his faux girlfriend. Paradoxically, his self-awareness, what his ex called narcissism, and his passiveness may give him the means to break free. He reflects: That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you. Or is he eyeing a retreat? Is it a retreat, from the hard issues of our season, to revel in the pleasure of reading passages like this, in Autumn: The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things. And in Winter: That’s where the birds came in and out, they were pigeons, no, they’re called collared doves, they had their families here, several families over the years, I remember there were quite a a lot of birds in here at one point. They made a lovely soft sound. We gave them a box full of straw to nest in but they brought their own twigs and took bits of the straw and wove them together, built nests up in the rafters and only used this room when it was rainy or cold. They mate for life, you know, those birds. I think you’ll find that’s a myth, Sophia said. Bending and breaking national borders, disastrously vulgar world leaders, narrowing social policies, loudening militancy, expanding deserts, shrinking glaciers—is it the worst of times, the very worst of times, after which times can only end? Or can the ghost of a flower: the life of it reaching across the words on the page for all the world like a footpath that leads to the lit tip of a candle —or can the image of a flower’s ghost, a photo viewed on the Internet, an impression of a rose trapped in dead-tree medium of words (the Shakespeare folio)—can it really light up the world? Can art light up anything? If we’re in the worst of times, can things only get better? Do we have to wait for Spring to find out? I’m looking forward to spring. I don’t like the cold. Where I live, the snow comes down these days as sleet and the dust on my ice skates thickens every year. But I’m also looking forward to Spring because I love Autumn and Winter.
In her introduction to the 2015 reissue of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, an exhilarating collection of literary retellings of fables and fairy tales, Kelly Link describes the book’s indelible effect on her work: The things that I needed when I was beginning to think about writing short stories were the things that I found in The Bloody Chamber. I needed to see how stories could be in conversation with other stories. I needed to see how playfulness and generosity and friction—of ideas, in language, in the admixture of high and low, the mythic and the psychologically realistic—were engines for story and structure and point of view. Link partly attributes the vital hybridity of Carter’s work to the self-conscious storytelling inherent to supernatural literature. “The literature of the fantastic,” she writes, “is peculiar in that stories are necessarily in conversation with other stories, dependent on other stories to achieve their effect. There is no such thing as a vampire, except in stories, because of stories.” These stories cannot hide that they rely upon other stories and are, in some sense, about storytelling itself. Such work thrives by embracing this history in order to transform it. Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, brilliantly continues Carter’s and Link’s tradition of literary fabulism. In line with the relationship Link proposes between the inherent intertextuality of fantastical literature, it’s also a Pandora’s box of bold re-thinkings of the short story form. The title subtly announces Machado’s experimental intentions by twisting the standard story collection title template—X and Other Stories. The titular “Her Body” refers not to a single story in the collection, but rather to the stories’ collective concern with women’s bodies and the narratives that constrict them. Machado begins the collection with “The Husband Stitch,” a magnificent retelling of the story of the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. Machado uses this retelling to reflect on the history of ghost stories and urban legends. “Everyone knows these stories—that is,” the narrator says, “everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them.” Of particular concern is the fate of women in such tales. “Brides never fare well in stories,” the narrator concludes, foreshadowing her own fate. [millions_ad] This explicit concern with narrative returns in “Especially Heinous,” the collection’s masterful centerpiece, which reimagines the first 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an uncanny police procedural haunted by doppelgängers and ghostly girls with bells for eyes. It’s a rich investigation of a wildly popular contemporary narrative centered on pernicious representations of women. Machado brilliantly subverts the show’s overwrought and readymade horrors into creeping figures of the uncanny by digging deep into the show’s own logic. One mode this takes is dark parody. Pillorying the show’s use of sex workers, Machado writes: “GHOST”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit. “RAGE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit. “PURE”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit. Elsewhere, Machado enriches and expands tropes of the show, bringing them into full dark bloom. The “theories” about cases the detectives constantly bat back and forth descend into nihilism: “‘My theory,’ [Benson] says to Stabler, ‘my theory is that I have a theory.’ Stabler offers to come over. ‘My theory,’ she says, ‘my theory is that there is no god.’” The show’s unending hunger for victims becomes a physical, supernatural feature of New York City, which is revealed to be built upon the back of an ancient and monstrous god, hungry for blood. By trading the show’s formulaic “realism” for phantasmagoric fabulism, Machado better approaches the abject horror of sexual violence. Machado explores toxic cultural narratives with the same intelligence and imagination. In “Eight Bites,” the narrator undergoes invasive weight loss surgery. The story—a bitter fairy tale, complete with three unnamed sisters—is rife with the grotesque cultural rhetoric that restricts women’s eating. The narrator’s sisters, happy recipients of the surgery, proselytize: “‘I feel so good,’ they all said. Whenever I talked to them, that was what always came out of their mouths, or really, it was a mouth, a single mouth that once ate and now just says, ‘I feel really, really good.’” The weight-loss argot of transformation plagues the narrator even after she has had the surgery and awaits its effects. “Will I ever be done,” she worries, “transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” She is transformed, but there’s a twist. The flesh she has banished returns to haunt her like a ghost inverted: pure corporeality. The narrator attacks her own flesh and rejoices in the act. “I am a new woman,” she announces. “A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force.” The story literalizes the logic of mandatory weight loss to make manifest its violence. Her Body and Other Parties also addresses the ways women’s lives have been and continue to be constrained by narratives that consign disobedient or unmanageable women to categories of madness or monstrosity. “The Resident” follows a novelist to a rural artist residency near the site of a mysterious childhood trauma. Chief among the narrator’s feverish worries is the reduction of her experience to a trope: “perhaps,” she says to the reader near the story’s end, “you’re thinking that I’m a cliché—a weak, trembling thing with a silly root of adolescent trauma, straight out of a gothic novel.” The story cleverly considers the troubled line between the tropifying of women in literature and life: Lydia filled my glass to the brim. “Do you ever worry,” she asked me, “that you’re the madwoman in the attic?”“What?” I said. “Do you ever worry about writing the madwoman-in-the-attic story?” “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” “You know. That old trope. Writing a story where the female protagonist is utterly batty. It’s sort of tiresome and regressive and, well, done”—here she gesticulated so forcefully that a few drops of red spattered the tablecloth—“don’t you think? And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Do you ever wonder about that?” When the narrator clarifies that her novel’s protagonist is a version of herself, Lydia responds, “So don’t write about yourself.” “Men are permitted to write concealed autobiography,” the narrator responds, “but I cannot do the same?” Later, she carves her name into the tablet above her writing desk, as the residency’s previous guests have done: “C—— M——.” The initials: Carmen Machado—a wink and an added layer of eerie resonance. Though Her Body and Other Parties centers on women’s lives, at the margins lurks the ultimate source of the horrors that haunt them: men. One of the epigraphs, from a poem by Elisabeth Hewer, reads: “god should have made girls lethal / when he made monsters of men.” The men in these stories are often monstrous. But more often their acts of cruelty fade into the normal course of narrative and of life. This is the truer monstrosity of these tales and of our world. In the final scene of “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator, who has given her husband everything he has ever asked for—with the sole exception of permission to untie the green ribbon around her neck—realizes that he will not be satisfied by anything less than everything he demands. Worse: “He is not a bad man,” she reflects, “and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet—” For all their formal and political complexities, Machado’s stories also return me to the elemental pleasure I felt sitting in the back of my family’s minivan absorbed in an anthology of children’s horror stories, or swaddled in a sleeping bag at summer camp listening to a counselor whisper ghost stories. And for all its darkness, Her Body and Other Parties is also a beautiful evocation of women’s—especially queer women’s—lives, in all their fullness, vitality, and complex joy. Formally daring, achingly moving, wildly weird, and startling in its visceral and aesthetic impact, Machado’s work is unlike any other.
After finishing Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, which originally appeared in 1982 and was re-issued this past November by New Directions, you may wonder how the marvelous secret of this novel was kept from you for so long. At 111 pages, shorn of extensive subplots, and paced for an evening’s read, Mrs. Caliban tells the droll story of love between an amphibious monster named Larry and a depressed housewife named Dorothy. It inspects what the love of a monster might mean when it doesn’t involve kidnapping, as it usually does in stories of uncanny “romance.” These tales are often anxious about a woman’s sexual allure, or feature a stiff measure of racist dread—think of King Kong or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Think also of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s “monster of my creation” establishes the universal rule that any abominable creature of tremendous bad fortune must be in want of a wife. Larry and Dorothy’s tryst, by contrast, eschews possession and is almost anxiety-free. And, after 35 years of near-obscurity, Mrs. Caliban’s time has come. Pop culture at large has caught up with Ingalls. Guillermo del Toro’s latest fable, The Shape of Water, appeared in theaters last December. Both film and novel chronicle the trials of an aquatic monster subjected to study in a government laboratory. In Del Toro’s film, a mute woman comes to the amphibious man’s aid, and what follows has the cadence of a wish fulfillment. In Ingalls’s novel, on a high wire above B-movie horror and second-wave feminism, “Aquarius the Monsterman” escapes his captors and walks through the kitchen door of Dorothy’s house. There’s little wishing, really. Dorothy is in the midst of improvising dinner for her husband, Fred, who has refused to say what he wanted to eat. Larry, with his incongruous frog’s head, stares her down and growls. Dorothy has already heard about the “Monsterman” on the radio. Ingalls suggests she has been having aural hallucinations, hearing ads aimed just at her. One announces, “Don’t worry, Dorothy, you’ll have another baby all right.” She and Fred lost one child to a “drug sensitivity” during an appendectomy, and a second child was stillborn. Frozen out by her philandering husband, who no longer kisses her goodbye and seems less brutal than adrift, Dorothy lives in a world “too unhappy” for divorce. Or so she tells her friend Estelle. When she had been considering separation, Ingalls writes, “there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.” This predicament—dead in a world of impossible love—resembles, in fact, the dilemma of Frankenstein’s monster. Living in a world that will never love him, he demands a companion from his creator. That’s what being a monster is sometimes: abandoned with the injuries of a painful isolation. But Dorothy’s pain is different. She lives in a house she later implies is a “prison.” Though initially flummoxed by “shock and terror” at the appearance of Larry, she reaches—it may be a mistake, Ingalls doesn’t say—for a stalk of celery rather than a nearby knife. Brandishing it, she watches while Larry takes the gesture as an offer of food. She may have meant it that way. A world too unhappy for separation might not have the strongest borders to keep others out. When Larry eats the celery, he thanks Dorothy and asks for help. “They will kill me,” he says. “I have suffered so much already.” Dorothy thinks, “You need help and so do I.” That Larry killed his captors and fled is a fact neither forgotten nor brooded over in Mrs. Caliban. Dorothy considers Larry’s polite manners to be “scars” of the torture that made him behave while held in the lab, where he was tested and sexually assaulted. In her lonely mind, it’s no stretch to regard civility as self-defense. [millions_ad] Larry is Fred’s superior from the outset. For one thing, Larry actually tells Dorothy what he would like to eat. The irony of Dorothy’s imprisoning marriage is that Fred treats her as if she were his warden and him the prisoner. So, when Larry makes a specific request, Dorothy happily prepares vegetables. He also proves to have a strong affection for avocadoes, which Dorothy acquires for him by the bagful. After his first meal, Dorothy stashes Larry in the guest room where Fred never goes, full as it is of things that once belonged to their dead son. Larry fits right where the breaches are. The next morning, because Larry is “so different,” Dorothy doesn’t mind him seeing her in her bathrobe, an item of clothing Larry loves. He thinks it’s a “garment of celebration.” Yet Dorothy misunderstands when he expresses the desire to help her clean the house. Freed from the lab, he enjoys the idea of being able to do whatever he wants and helping her clean is like permission. When they end up back in the guest room, Larry starts to take off Dorothy’s robe and nightgown, too. It’s a strange scene, and Ingalls only just dispels its creepiness, which feels appropriate for alien intercourse. Though Dorothy says she’s frightened and Larry asks what she wants, she wonders what it even means to feel “embarrassment” in the situation of sex with a six-foot-seven-inch aquatic monster-man. The upshot is: no shame. They spend the rest of the day having sex all over the house. One of Ingalls’s key moves is simply to imagine casual sex with a monster-man. It doesn’t represent a journey beyond Dorothy’s inhibitions. When Larry asks her if they’re having too much sex, she answers: It’s just the right amount for me. It’s perfect. People here are all different about it: some people like a lot, some only like a little, some change according to who they’re with or what age they are or whether they’re in a good mood, or even if the weather changes. Ingalls doesn’t stop there, either. She spends the rest of the novel thinking over the boundaries of Dorothy’s desire. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Larry never understands a woman’s company as the cure for pain. But, of course, his situation is entirely different. He has a species, something Frankenstein’s monster can only, tragically, fantasize about. Larry’s exile is his alone, and there's a limit to how much he can share it. Dorothy never expects him to anyway. Though she believes the two of them are “so alike I’m not sure if we should really be called separate species,” she wants to help Larry return to his home in the Gulf of Mexico. If their romance is indeed a figment of Dorothy’s imagination (the novel leaves open the possibility), then what she fantasizes is not torrid and tragic but gracious and warm. The fantasy is not the fish-human hybrid, but the idea that your ideal sex partner would simply open the door and walk into your house. Larry may not see it this way, though. After Estelle tells Dorothy that desire is all about wanting things you don’t need—an excess or indulgence—Larry claims the opposite: When we [fish-men] want something, it’s true. We don’t want something we can’t have and not like the thing we get instead. The thing you want is the thing you have, isn’t it? Dorothy argues with him. What we have depends on the prison we’re in, especially, she thinks, for women and monsters. To Dorothy, what Larry describes sounds surprisingly like male prerogative among humans, except that it dismisses the fantasy of wanting what you don’t have. Larry even explains that fish-women among his people are “jealous” and “wanting” in a way that fish-men, in their aloofness, are not. That’s just the way it is, he says. When he claims that only humans are all “different” from each other, Dorothy insists that, if that were really true, men would be more different from other men than women from other women, because men’s jobs are very varied, while most women do the same things. But it isn’t true—women differ from each other just as much as men do. Do you think we could trust some other people to help us… if they were other housewives like me? Human beings may not be so reliably different as Larry supposes, and those differences don’t guarantee any particular virtue. Perhaps fish-people are not all the same, either. Dorothy suspects that Larry hasn’t seen beyond the neat divisions of the mating habits he describes. Anyone can avail themselves of such easy thinking, and even a monster can have questionable opinions. Despite the love between them, Dorothy doesn’t regard Larry as a saint, god, or savior. A good novel can’t be spoiled. Only a plot can. But readers should experience the perfect melodrama of Mrs. Caliban for themselves. I won’t give away its juicy conflicts. Taking its title from the half-fish monster of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ingalls’s novel calls to mind another Shakespearean coinage, the “marriage of true minds” that alters not when it “alteration finds.” Larry and Dorothy are undeniably in love. Where other monsters bring destruction, Larry arrives in a life already destroyed. Where other human beings might see something grotesque, Dorothy sees herself: lovable, compassionate, and, take note, dangerous.
It can be hard to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in our nation’s Gonzo Presidency. Just days ago, as I was finishing Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, the book’s central figure, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, was still rumored to have the president’s ear, phoning in to the Oval Office to give political advice even after his support of accused child molester Roy Moore gave Democrats a Senate seat in Alabama, the reddest of red states. But the day I began writing this, the president broke with his long-time consigliere, issuing a blistering public repudiation saying, among other things, “When [Bannon] was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.” At times like these, it can be hard to take the occupants of the White House seriously as anything other than smack-talking stars of a not-especially-convincing politically themed reality TV show. But we need to take Donald Trump and Steve Bannon very seriously because one of them is president of the United States and the other is the man who got him there. This is precisely the virtue of Green’s absorbing book: It takes Trump and Bannon seriously, not as the overgrown teenagers they seem so intent on playing on TV, but as two canny media manipulators who, together, won the most powerful political office in the world. As it happens, the source of the sudden blood enmity between the two men is yet another political tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. That book has not yet been released as I write this, but going by the tabloid tone of the excerpts that have appeared in New York and The Hollywood Reporter, and the scabrously critical quotes from Bannon and others that have leaked elsewhere, Fire and Fury is likely to become the one Trump/Bannon book most people will read. This is unfortunate because while Green doesn’t quote Bannon accusing the president’s son of treason or offer juicy peeks at Trump’s efforts to keep the White House staff away from his toothbrush, Devil’s Bargain is the first thing I’ve read in the last year and a half that manages to make some sense of the human catastrophic weather event that is Steve Bannon. And make sense of him we must. Now that Trump has cut ties with him, Bannon may well fade from public consciousness as have many other one-time right-wing stars like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck before him. But that won’t change the fact that Bannon did more than anyone besides Trump himself to elect a politically naive reality TV star president of the United States. That, of course, isn’t how Trump sees it. In his incendiary public statement announcing his break from Bannon, Trump noted that Bannon joined the 2016 campaign only after Trump had won the Republican nomination, adding: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country.” This, as is the case with so much the president says when he’s in a mood, is demonstrably untrue. Green persuasively argues that Bannon, who first met Trump in 2011, offered the future president two services without which Trump never could have won: first, “a fully formed, internally coherent worldview…about trade and foreign threats,” and, second, a turn-key ready “infrastructure of conservative organizations” that had spent decades attacking his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Indeed, at times reading Green’s book, one comes away with the gnawing sense that Trump did not so much win the 2016 election as happen to be the guy who benefitted when the darker forces on America’s right wing finally succeeded in destroying Hillary after failing to drive her husband from office in the 1990s. [millions_ad] Bannon, Green maintains, deserves credit for being at the center of this effort. Now, before we go too far down that road, it should be noted that Bannon is clearly the source of much of Devil’s Bargain and that, like everyone else in Trumpland, Bannon has a habit of taking credit for every least thing that happens, including the sun rising in the morning. But Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, has done some important journalistic spadework, including deep dives into the sources of Bannon’s political philosophy and the inner machinery of his political and media operations, that lends credence to the pivotal role Bannon played in Trump’s improbable rise. Among the more fascinating nuggets Green has unearthed is the fact that, before he ran for president, Donald Trump, the TV star, was wildly popular among immigrants and African Americans. Starting from its debut season, when its breakout star was a black Howard University grad student named Omarosa Manigault, The Apprentice was not only unusually integrated for a prime-time American TV show, but presented minority contestants as striving, ambitious entrepreneurs. As a result, Green reports, “the audience that tuned into The Celebrity Apprentice was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers Trump attracted.” It was this popularity among liberal-leaning minority audiences that Trump torched when he chose to enter the national arena by questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Thus, it was in a certain way fortuitous for Trump that he was able to graft Bannon’s hard-right focus on traditional values and nationalist policies onto his own ever-shifting worldview. Even “the Wall,” Trump’s signature campaign pledge, turns out to have been “a trick, a mnemonic device,” according to Green, who quotes Trump staffer Sam Nunberg saying he and fellow campaign operative Roger Stone came up with the line about building a border wall in 2014 as a way “to make sure [Trump] talked about immigration.” But perhaps the most decisive gift Bannon offered Trump was access to a vast, well-financed machinery designed to take down Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the early 2000s, Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who owes his personal fortune to, of all things, a stake in Seinfeld reruns he picked up in a deal, began making political documentaries. The films don’t seem to have made much of a ripple in of themselves, but they put Bannon in contact with fringe right-wing figures like David Bossie, president of the anti-Clinton group Citizens United, and reclusive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who financed Bannon’s political and media operations. It was the Mercer-funded outfits, chief among them the feisty alt-right news site Breitbart News and the lesser known Government Accountability Institute, a Florida-based research group, that played the largest roles in the 2016 campaign. In Devil’s Bargain, Green outlines a two-pronged media strategy in which Breitbart administered daily doses of political provocation aimed at the alt-right masses while the research group played the long game of digging up just enough legitimate dirt on Clinton that the mainstream media would have to pick up the story. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon tells Green. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.” This, it strikes me, is the true genius of Steve Bannon. His politics are a muddle of white-identity grievances and crackpot theories, his nose for political talent is dubious at best, and he has a singular gift for self-destruction. But the man understands systems. Peel away the revolutionary bluster and the three-day stubble and you have a Goldman Sachs banker engaging in a smart bit of media arbitrage. Bannon recognized that the mainstream media, despite its liberal lean, was willing to go after Clinton, but didn’t have the resources. So, leveraging the Mercers’ millions, he provided those resources for them, financing a team of data scientists who scoured the deep web for unreported donors to the Clinton Foundation who may have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons. They hit pay dirt in the form of a book called Clinton Cash, which sped to the bestsellers list and spawned multiple independent media investigations, including one that landed on the front page of The New York Times, setting off the first of a cascade of scandals that painted Clinton as incorrigibly corrupt. As I write this, The Washington Post is reporting that Rebekah Mercer, one of Bannon’s earliest and most prolific political patrons, has also broken with him and sided with President Trump. For now, Bannon remains in charge of Breitbart News, but he may be thrown under that bus before long, too, leaving the man the national press once portrayed as the mastermind of the Trump administration as little more than a national punchline. If that happens—and given the post-resignation track record of so many senior Trump aides, it would hardly be surprising—the currency of Devil’s Bargain will no doubt fade as well. That would be a shame because whatever you may think of Steve Bannon, he saw better than almost anyone else how to exploit the vulnerabilities in the modern media landscape to elect a man president. Many of those vulnerabilities still exist, and anyone who wants to elect the next Donald Trump—or to prevent his election—had better understand what Bannon saw.
The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth. —Theodor Adorno A Calcutta-born lecturer living on the East Coast of the United States is visiting India with his six-year-old son. He is worried; since their arrival in Agra, an unsettling quiet has descended on his American boy. On the way from the Taj Mahal to Fatehpur Sikri, the father recalls how, the day before, their car drove by a crowd gathered around the body of a worker who had fallen from the scaffolding of a multistory building. Without asking, the father now wonders whether the son too has had a glimpse of the blood-darkened spot where the worker fell to death—whether that is the real reason he has become withdrawn and meek. The ominous mood intensifies inside the monument. The father, unmoored and clutching onto the boy’s hand, looks at a carved fresco: An animal, crouching below, had been defaced too, making it look much like the lower half of a human child, decapitated in the act of squatting; it brought to mind ritual sacrifice. A small thrill of repulsion went through him. The mutilated carvings had the nature of fantastical creatures from Bosch’s sick imagination; left untouched, they would have been simply beautiful. Then the dimness started to play havoc with his perception. Shapes and colors got unmoored and recoalesced in different configurations. It was like discovering a camel smoking a pipe, formed in clouds in the sky, shift and morph into a crawling baby held in the cradling trunk of an elephant… Neel Mukherjee’s third novel of five linked narratives, A State of Freedom, begins with a realistic story told not so realistically. Thematically, it does not remain within the bounds of the premise on which it is originally predicated: the clash of the cosmopolitan sensibility acquired in the West with the ways of modernizing India. Mukherjee works within a complex tonality, reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov and John Banville, writers who are fond of flexing realism but look away from history. He varies his tone from earthy—representing the quotidian—to a giddiness that borders on the surreal and occasionally slips into the absurd. The images borne along the way disrupt the logic of realism. The father, after being jostled by the erratic driver encounters “the swiftly engorging clot of people” and “the blazing froth of bushes.” Hours before he would wake up to his own tragedy in the hotel, his face “twisted around on the stalk of his neck,” and “the white bed linen” beneath him “roped and peaked in the great [incomprehensible] turbulence.” In his 1938 essay, “Realism in the Balance,” Georg Lukács argues that the Surrealists “construct characters in terms of their own consciousness and not by contrasting that consciousness with the reality independent of them.” He found “a vivid evocation of the disintegration, the discontinuities, the ruptures,” in modernist writings. But he could see the maneuver of identifying “this [disintegrating] state of mind directly and unreservedly with reality itself.” The “highly distorted image”—like the one at the end of the passage quoted above—representing the disintegration becomes the focus itself; modernist poetics do not encourage readers to go beyond the image and engage with what circumstances caused the disintegration. Had Mukherjee’s mode of narration been purely realistic, the story would have opened up to the trite debate of migration in the times of globalization, and the questions of civilization in the context of post-coloniality. As such, Mukherjee’s intention to historicize subsides. The story, wrapped in terrifying mystery, successfully replicates the experience of disintegration itself. [millions_ad] The theme of the clash between cosmopolitanism and the rigidities of tradition finds a stronger exploration in the second story. A liberal, London-based foodie is visiting his Bengali parents in Bombay. Observing his father’s dealings with the domestic help, he recalls “the Indian practice of shouting at the servants.” He is painfully aware that the practice is “hallowed.” The foodie’s father is a Brahmin while the cleaning lady, Milly, is an Adivasi, a forest-dwelling tribe in the eastern state of Jharkhand. His authority to shout at her is sanctified by his religion. This upsets his son, who despite his mother’s attempts to dissuade him, keeps conversing with Milly as well as Renu, the cooking aunty, and pays a visit to the slum where they live. A year later he visits Calcutta to research a book he is writing about Indian breakfasts and ventures out of the city to visit Renu’s family. The encounter exposes his ambivalence. He feels disgusted while “driving through the hell of Haora district…dirty, squashed in and claustrophobic.” When he reaches the village, the sight of the cramped lives brings doubt and unease. “Not for the first time,” he wishes he had listened to his mother, because the visit bristles “with all kinds of awkwardnesses and contretemps.” Apparently, the foodie has a lot in common with V.S. Naipaul’s character Santosh from the first short story “One Out of Many” in In a Free State (1971). Both are first seen in Bombay. Their lives revolve around food. Both experience migration and adjustment. But in comparison to Santosh’s nightmarish existence, the foodie’s hesitation about where he would relieve himself while staying at Renu’s, whether the bathroom would be clean enough, is a trifle. Naipaul’s realism is of a different order. He sees the behavior of his characters as a function of the cultures in which they are entrenched. For instance, the cleaning of the teeth with a toothpick in an unnamed African country (A Bend in the River), defecating in the open in India (An Area of Darkness), and spitting out seeds while eating a melon in Iran (Among the Believers). His prejudice and his achievement is that he arrays the minutest behavioral manifestations along the axes of the many civilizations he inhabits but does not entirely belong to. He historicizes by infusing his characters with his own quest to define and locate himself vis-a-vis the colonial history that has uprooted him and consequently produced him. It is this scalding quest that makes Santosh a disturbing feat of a character. In revealing the harrowing inequities and contradictions of contemporary India, Mukherjee does not weigh his characters in relation to the currents of history that have tossed them about. And in writing about Laxman, a laborer struggling to feed his family, he is not charting an individual’s path of migration from his village to the neighboring town initiated by some wave of urbanization or modernity. Instead, by evoking the details, grueling and tender, of Laxman’s pursuit to teach a wild bear cub how to dance so that it can become the source of his livelihood, he is dignifying the universal experience of human survival itself. Although history is not a determinant force in the aesthetic conception of Laxman, this reader cannot ignore the crushing weight of the facts that surrounds him. In September of 2017, two French economists Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty published a report called “India Income Inequality, 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj?” Their findings suggest that within India’s salaried class, income inequality may be at its worst in the last 100 years. Laxman does not fall under this category. He does not have an income, least of all a taxable one. He does not own land. He represents 21.9 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion who are below the poverty line and have less than $1.90 a day to spend. In an aggressively neoliberal economy, where the middle class looks up to the billionaires whose wealth keeps soaring on the Forbes list, the life of a laborer hardly registers. Mukherjee’s achievement is in sustaining his characters, adrift in realms of stark disparity, in a style that is buoyant and effervescent. He is not daunted by the dereliction of his landscape. Out of his own turbulent encounter with the home country after living for decades in the United Kingdom, he forges sentences of distinct, crystalline beauty. In the pavilion at the top,” he writes, “where Akbar used to sleep, faded frescoes, nibbled away by time with a slow but tenacious voracity, covered the walls.” Mukherjee’s decision to tell Milly’s backstory from a third-person omniscient point of view is a wise one. Had her story been filtered through the foodie’s consciousness and told from his point of view, it would have been tinted with his naïve optimism. As such, we intimately learn the details of her arrival in Bombay, and how her first employers abused her. She eventually managed to escape with the help of a man from the slum she later married. Time passed and she became a mother. And one evening when she was on a bus with her daughter whom she had gone to pick up from school, her brother gave her a call from home. Soni, Milly’s childhood friend and a Maoist guerrilla, has been killed by paramilitaries. Unlike Milly, readers know how the state forest guards heckled and raped Soni’s sister on the pretext of gathering kenju leaves. And how Soni’s mother, disregarded by the public health system, ended up hanging herself from a tree. But the memory of Milly’s once closest friend does not mean anything now. The news of Soni’s death in fact strengthens her resolve to educate her daughter. The moment is ironical, almost cruel. The state has not only penetrated Milly’s home by sending in the forest guards and paramilitaries. But, away from home, it has also subversively refashioned the truth of her life. Writing in The New York Times on the eve of India’s 70th birthday, Pankaj Mishra noted that ever since the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, the practices of Hindu nationalism have become wanton. The killing of intellectuals and dissenters, the lynching of Muslims, and racist assaults on Africans continue apace. The public sphere is shrunken and vitiated. A book as incandescent and heartfelt as A State of Freedom is to be read and reckoned with against this bleak backdrop. Mukherjee calls upon one corroded nation’s capacity for introspection, to cast a few visceral glances at the millions of lives battered daily.
As I think is the case for most writers born after 1980, the first outlets to publish my work were online. To be more specific, they were blogs—online spaces that valued ideas and abstraction over narrative and detail. My writing followed an outline similar to the five-paragraph essay: here’s what I’m trying to communicate, here’s how it affects you, here’s how you should respond. I am grateful for these online outlets: they gave me deadlines and creative autonomy and a reason to write outside of the college classroom where I took my first creative writing courses or, later, my nine-to-five office job. But writing for the Internet did not teach me about concreteness or precision. It taught me to come up with an argument and explicate, maybe with a brief anecdote to catch the reader’s interest. The actual substance of the material world rarely made an appearance. I learned about particularity from literature. Books reward attention to detail by virtue of being physical objects. You can flip to the end of a novel if you like, but it feels like cheating—much more than skimming an online article, index finger flicking across the mouse. Books aren’t designed to seize the reader with wild titles or to funnel her through a story using lists and bite-sized sections. They are designed to construct worlds furnished with smells and objects and memories, and this construction requires the accumulation of concrete and specific building blocks. In Brown: the Last Discovery of America Richard Rodriguez writes, "Literature flows to the particular, the mundane, the greasiness of paper, the taste of warm beer, the smell of onion or quince...Literature cannot by this impulse betray the grandeur of its subject—there is only one subject: What it feels like to be alive. Nothing is irrelevant. Nothing is typical.” Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, Too Much and Not the Mood, is a ranging, intricate work crowded with lush detail. Her prose blends commentary on pop culture with the precision of literature. It flows to the particular, just as Rodriguez suggests literature should. Nothing is irrelevant: not the examination of an emoji, not Allen Iverson’s voice, not a “lathery shade of peach” in a painting at the Met. Chew-Bose is meticulous in recording what it feels like to be alive, down to the most unassuming observations: “A poorly painted wall. Its cracks. The ceiling fan’s chop. A woman on the C train pulling her ponytail through its tie, not once or twice, but six times.” Not only does Chew-Bose welcome life’s minutiae into her writing, she delights in it, a fact that lends even her densest and most tangential prose charm. No object or observation is too mundane to elicit wonder. Under her attention, there’s awe to be drawn from a scene in The Godfather or the emotional power of cheap pop songs, the kind with “nowhere lyrics that repeat one word over and over like a hymn written in neon-tube lighting.” That is, songs that send us singing down the freeway, gleefully unabashed and willing to roll the windows down even in a drizzle. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Too Much and Not the Mood celebrates the minute experiences that heighten our capacity for wonder. The book reminded me that an event, a trip, or a day is the sum of its concrete parts, a compilation of every miniature, material detail: the bricks that form a home. Under Chew-Bose’s keen-eyed observation, a wedding is not a wedding in the abstract sense of the word; it is the glimpse of gold sandals under a dress, a chilled red wine, “sequined strings of twinkle lights blurring with purple bougainvillea vines,” desert mountains turning jewel tones, and cake abandoned on plates while guests dance. [millions_ad] I read Too Much and Not the Mood in my final residency of graduate school. I was leaving behind two years of immersion in language, and my preemptive nostalgia meant paying closer attention than usual to my surroundings and sensations: the spike of sage in the air, the rock-salt rim of a margarita, a poem recited aloud as trees waved in agreement outside the window. I read Chew-Bose’s essays at a courtyard table in Santa Fe as thunderstorms rolled in and out and rain speckled the book cover and my cohort and I reached across one other for snacks and hummed over words. That’s what her writing did for me: it made me hum in recognition. Even though her particulars are not mine, she reports them with an accuracy that generates recognition. They are specific enough to jolt my own memories. When she writes that she is happiest “barefoot in [my parents’] home eating sliced fruit,” I felt my parents’ hardwood kitchen floor under my feet and tasted crescents of peach, placed one after another onto my tongue. That is the essence of childhood summers for me, and the essence of what I’ve left behind in becoming an adult: the backyard in Santa Barbara, a warm towel under my stomach as I lay in the grass reading a library book, cherries or a peach within reach. I imagine Chew-Bose’s wonder ignites a similar emotion in most readers, if not through recognition than purely through the aesthetics of her language. Take this passage: “Palm trees pipe my sense of awe into its purest form. Puppies asleep on their sides, lattice piecrusts, and women in perfectly tailored pantsuits generate a similar response. So does young Al Pacino. ...Those young Pacino eyes capsize me.” That specificity of example and those pitch-perfect verbs—pipe, capsize—supply plenty of wonder on their own. Reading Too Much and Not the Mood reminded me I could write about these things—nostalgia for my parent’s kitchen, lattice piecrusts, cheap pop music—and not only that, but by honing in on the specifics of my own life, I could reach through the screen or the page and speak to the specifics of a stranger’s life. Chew-Bose’s zeroing-in on the miniature proves that experiencing beauty often requires paying close attention. Which is perhaps good advice for writing as much as for life. “Thinking of someone the way he was is really just another way of writing,” Chew-Bose asserts in the opening, sprawling essay “Heart Museum.” “Thinking about someone I was once in love with—how he’d peel an orange and hand me a slice or how is white T-shirt would peek out from under his gray sweatshirt. … Thinking about that crescent of white cotton is a version of writing.” Too Much and Not the Mood can be read as a manual for how to write: pay close attention, and write about what captures. A number of the essays in Too Much and Not the Mood first appeared in online publications like The Hairpin. I’m thankful that Chew-Bose is one of many writers restoring particularity to the Internet’s prose, as well as delight. A phrase like “a dragon fruit’s Dalmatian-speckled insides” is a reprieve, pointing me back to the tactile, intricate world outside my book or screen. Chew-Bose’s talent is to hold up objects to the light so they refract, expanding beyond their material existence—the concrete speaking to abstract concepts of affection, nostalgia, loss, and wonder. There’s something mischievous about giving attention to these objects, if only because they’re so likely to go unnoticed. In her exactitude, Chew-Bose points out what many of us miss: the glints, the one-offs, the seconds that normally scurry past. Look there, her writing seems to say. There it is—pay attention.
Ice—the last novel Anna Kavan wrote before she was discovered dead with a syringe in her arm and her head resting on the case in which she kept her heroin—is a gem of speculative fiction. It is uncanny, hallucinatory, apocalyptic, a book crowded with glaciers and starlight. The novel’s popularity has grown steadily since its first publication in 1967 and Penguin Classics 50th Anniversary reissue of Ice, with a fine introduction by Jonathan Lethem, gives Kavan’s valedictory effort the platform it deserves. The plot is deceptively simple. In the aftermath of a major atomic event, a monomaniacal man searches for a fragile, silver-haired girl from his past as the vise of a new ice age clinches the planet. He searches for her through the chaotic territory of memories, dreams, and half-real war zones. At all costs, he must locate “the glass girl” before the world darkens and human life is over. In a game of cat and mouse, he sails to foreign shores on the last overcrowded ships, gleaning clues to her whereabouts, yet when he finds her—and he always manages to—she flees from him as from a tyrant. The warden of an unnamed northern country is the narrator’s erotic rival and has the power and savvy to preempt the narrator’s every move. Kavan makes ample suggestions that the two adversaries are in fact doubles, mirror-images, the Superego and Id of the author’s avowedly psychoanalytical nightmare (Kavan’s best friend and sometime creative collaborator, Karl Theodor Bluth, was a psychoanalyst who treated her depression and supplied her with legal heroin). In addition to being a prolific writer and inveterate drug addict, Kavan was a serious painter, producing startling artworks in a series of modernist styles, from cubism and expressionism to surrealism. Her wartime traumas (she lost her only son in WWII) and confinement in asylums (much like another oft-neglected English painter and writer, Leonora Carrington) add to Ice’s strange alchemy of glittering, visionary detail and psychological dishevelment. Considering Kavan’s earlier works, such as the story collections Asylum Piece and I Am Lazarus, one can’t help but read the glass girl in Ice as, in part, a self-portrait of the protean, charismatic, and psychologically bruised author who never recovered from a childhood of maternal neglect. The novel’s dystopian world is hermetically sealed. Geographical information is withheld and we are never quite able to get our bearings in this landscape of snow and ruins, illuminated by the ever-changing lights of the aura borealis. The glass girl slips through the pages, tantalizingly out of reach, seen through the filter of the male narrator’s objectifying, sadistic, chimerical gaze. Her hair is “bright as spun glass” and “shimmers like silver fire;” her face “cracks to pieces and tumbles into the dark;” the narrator fantasizes about “the circular marks of teeth [standing] out clearly” on her “white flesh;” he sees “the dead moon dance over the icebergs, as it would at the end of our world, while she watches from the tent of her glittering hair;” “mountainous walls of ice surround” the girl and “huge ice-battlements fill…the sky, lit from within by frigid mineral fires.” One never tires of Kavan’s poetry. She has a gift for elemental and atavistic language. [millions_ad] The science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has dubbed Kavan “Kafka’s sister” for good reason. Not only did she absorb and creatively imitate many of Franz Kafka’s short stories in the 1930s and 1940s, but she carried his enthusiasm for the frustrated quest, the skeptical fantasy, and the allegory without a key into her mature work. It’s hard not to see reflections of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in Ice. As in those novels, the mysteries of the invisible and all-powerful authorities are never penetrated or understood. Kavan even changed her name from Helen Ferguson in 1939 as a phonetic gesture to Kafka, whose own Czech surname was originally spelled “Kavka.” Some critics read the “ice” as a metaphor for Kavan’s desperate struggle with heroin and the cold, suffocating experience of addiction. Others view the novel as a veiled autobiography of Kavan’s relationships with abusive men that eventually led to romantic abstention. Given that the narrator, the glass girl, and the warden are sometimes conflated through slippages in point of view, one could see the various character dynamics as a kind of alchemical yearning for the androgyne, for the union of psychological, emotional, and sexual opposites (a major preoccupation of surrealists like Max Ernst, whose technical innovations Kavan appropriated in her own paintings). To a certain degree, it’s useful to interpret the book as a critique of totalitarianism, the ecological crimes of the Anthropocene, or a protest against the Cold War. A few have pointed out its proto-feminist verve, though the satire of patriarchal thought-control is never entirely satisfying or aboveboard, as it is, say, in the works of her contemporaries Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Kavan’s first critic, Brian Aldiss, saw Ice as a pure science fiction novel. Faced with such a multidimensional work, the reviewer is happy to allow all these interpretative planes to coexist. Even 50 years after its publication, this is still a relevant book. It’s not perfect. The author, after all, was in and out of the hospital during the process of composition and her editor, Peter Lang, demanded dramatic revisions before agreeing to publish the novel (characterized by one manuscript reader as a “mixture of Kafka and the Avengers,” a description Kavan found delightful). The narrative repetition of chase and escape can be tiresome and the prose can occasionally slip from its usual sterling quality. Nevertheless, Ice is ambitious, unforgettable, and one of a kind. It demands to be experienced. During a time of environmental crisis, when totalitarian-inflected administrations are brazenly withdrawing from climate accords, when ice caps are melting and the world’s magnificent glaciers are disappearing, Ice provides a photographic negative of the present moment—a world overshadowed by atomic threat and nearly devoid of ice.
1. It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go. G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic. What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing. Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity. 2. Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy. Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it. Authors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists. Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is. The villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon. 3. After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials. Journeys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy. In earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan. There’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments. 4. The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall. Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal. What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own. It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief. At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books. The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.
Among the many attractive qualities of the late James Salter—his powers of evocation; his famously ungross writing about sex; his apprehension of and about mid-century masculinity—is that he didn’t overestimate his chosen profession. He wore it lightly, the way ace pilots he knew wore their heroic qualities lightly. That writing had been a choice for him, before it was anything else, was paramount. Salter chose to resign his commission from the Air Force in 1957, after a grueling education at West Point and 12 years of service that saw him fly over 100 combat missions during the Korean War. Leaving the military to become a novelist “was the most difficult act of my life,” he writes in the first of the essays collected in this new volume of nonfiction, Don’t Save Anything. Difficult not because writing was dangerous or glorious (“I had seen what I took to be real glory”), but because there was no way, with his background, to avoid imagining as marks of personal weakness the potential humiliation, financial risk, and egotism that writing invites. West Point trained him for the opposite of those things; naturally, he ended up avoiding all three in a career that yielded six novels, two books of short stories, plays, screenplays, a brilliant memoir, and the journalism gathered here. He wrote with a new lease on life, under the name James Salter rather than his birth name James Horowitz. “Call it a delusion if you like,” he writes, “but within me was an insistence that whatever we did, the things that were said, the dawns, the cities, the lives, all of it had to be drawn together, made into pages, or it was in danger of not existing, of never having been.” Having gotten a late start, Salter wasted no time and no words; from The Hunters (1956) to All That Is (2013), every sentence feels measured and without ornament, the emotions precisely located before their conveyance. Paragraphs resolve with a pronounced matter-of-factness, often along a chain of clipped, plainly wrought details marshalled by a style that’s always subtle, never self-amused, and capable of devastating poignancy. Salter practiced the indulgence of writing with a kind of operational humility, even on topics like war and sex that other male writers of his generation could crow about ad nauseam. “Don’t save anything” was his advice to other writers, his widow Kay Eldredge Salter explains in the preface to this book. Saving “phrases or names or incidents” for some better, future composition was a luxury unsuited to someone so familiar with mortal risk, or at least someone who really knew how to savor the moment. In his own moderate way, Salter did live a sort of bon vivant American literary life, whose familiar locales (New York, Paris, Rome, Aspen, Iowa City) provide the backdrops to some of these essays. He met glamour with curiosity and discernment—never taken in, exactly, but entering on his own terms. His friendship with the young Robert Redford, for example, is described in one of this collection’s fuller pieces, about his experiences in screenwriting. (In New York, “when I went into restaurants with Redford, eyes turned to watch as we crossed the room—the glory seemed to be yours as well.”) Ultimately, though, the movie business failed to move him: “Looking back, I suppose I have always rejected the idea of actors as heroes, and no intimacy with any of them has changed this,” he writes. “Actors are idols. Heroes are those with something at stake.” He might have said the same about writers. Glory belonged not to the individual but to the endeavor, like in the military. ”The thing that is marvelous is literature,” he says in another essay, “which is like the sea, and the exaltation of being near it, whether you are a powerful swimmer or wading by the shore.” Don’t Save Anything is an odds-and-ends collection of pieces mostly written for magazines, from The New Yorker and Esquire to Outside and European Travel and Life. A few of them cover topics and rehearse memories more richly developed in his superb collection of travel writing, There & Then (2005), and the memoir Burning the Days (1997), which may be his masterpiece. Still, with a biography of Salter yet to appear (his papers at the University of Texas lie in waiting), Don’t Save Anything does more than any publication since the memoir to show us who he was, to “reveal some of the breadth and depth of Jim’s endless interest in the world,” as Kay Eldredge Salter puts it. That’s all very welcome, and reading Salter on French restaurants or the history of Aspen is preferable to reading just about anyone else on those subjects, but it’s when Salter reveals more than merely his interests that the prose really flickers, as it does throughout Burning the Days. On catching a glimpse of Redford at a premier years after their friendship had waned, he writes: There was a virtual rain of light as flashbulbs went off everywhere, and, amid a small group moving down the aisle, the blond head of the star could be seen. I was far off —years, fact—but felt a certain sickening pull. There came to me the part about Falstaff and the coronation. I shall be sent for in private, I thought, consoling myself. I shall be sent for soon at night. He was, at last, when The Paris Review awarded him its lifetime-achievement Hadada Prize in 2011, with Redford as the presenter. (“This is my Stockholm,” Salter told the gala.) Predictably, these essays illustrate how at ease Salter felt in the world of derring-do—not bloodsports, but auto racing, skiing, and climbing. His fluency in the often unspoken codes of male camaraderie and competition was a transferrable skill, and he mined those pursuits for literary productions like the novel Solo Faces (1979) and the screenplay for Downhill Racer (1969), in which Redford starred and which Robert Ebert called “the best movie ever made about sports—without really being about sports at all.” Like Jon Krakauer after him, Salter could hang: profiling the legendary climber Royal Robbins, Salter clings to the crag right with him (“Almost from the first moment, certainly from the time you are eight or ten feet off the ground, there is the feeling of being in another element, as distinct as diving into the sea”). About authors Salter is courteous here, a powerful swimmer hailing others further out. For a very different editorial staff of People, he interviewed Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Antonia Fraser, and Han Suyin. For The Paris Review, which published many of his short stories, he wrote a gorgeously rendered but myopic essay-in-vignettes about the Italian poet and proto-fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. (The logic here is that only so many writers have ever also been fighter pilots, and d’Annunzio is more interesting than Roald Dahl or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Salter’s essay, included in There & Then, about the favorite Tokyo hotel of Yukio Mishima, another reactionary whackjob, has little to say about Mishima.) In his tributes to people like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Isaac Babel, and the editor Ben Sonnenberg, Jr., his style brings to mind that of another consummate “writer’s writer,” the reporter Murray Kempton. Like Kempton, Salter could write about his subjects with a sense of history and deep continuity, casting them almost as actors from antiquity or myth. Salter’s fans may wish he had written more before his death in June 2015, but seen from another vantage his reticence can look like virtue: unlike many in the nursing home of “American letters,” Salter didn’t feel compelled to weigh in on every controversy under the sun. Whatever his private grumblings, he didn’t re-enlist to fight in the culture wars on behalf of Allan Bloom, the Ayatollah, or Patrick Bateman, at least not in these essays. At a time when Joyce Carol Oates brings a suicide vest to a gunfight each day on Twitter, Salter’s non-intervention comes as a relief more than anything. And since his fiction is so far from broad social portraiture, it’s no surprise that when Salter does veer into the realm of “commentary,” he sounds imprecise and ambivalent, firmly out of his lane. Only in the last essay of the book, a transcribed lecture from 1995, do we get all the predictable hand-wringing about the state of the canon, the universities, deconstructivism, euphemistic discourse, the souring influence of television, computers, and pop culture, etc.; he locks sights and rains death from above on one straw man after another. The worth of literary texts, he insists, “is not in their provenance or their good intentions, just as their achievement is not to be gauged by their conformity to the moment’s panethnic pansexual Panglossian social or political enthusiasms.” This kind of talk came very cheap in the '90s, of course, and represents a riskless engagement with literature. It makes Salter seem so much more common than some of us would like to think he was. But the mistake, Salter himself would surely agree, is to come expecting heroism in the first place. Elsewhere, a 1998 “Talk of the Town” piece about Bill Clinton’s perjury seems neither here nor there. The truest shame of the bunch is “Younger Women, Older Men,” a meandering essay full of literary and historical and autobiographical referents, about the attraction of older men to younger women and vice versa. Needless to say, it is among the last takes on that presently extremely charged topic that anyone will want to read at the end of the 2017. It’s not so lecherous or piggish (Salter’s own much younger wife, with whom he spent nearly 40 years before his death, was no doubt at the front of his mind through it all) as it is equivocal and even playful where neither of those things can do. On one page he praises a young heterosexual couple in words that could come from a Focus on the Family newsletter, and on the next he says something so definitive as: “The slightest understanding of things shows that men will take what they are not prevented from taking, and all the force of society must be set against this impulse.” Would that he concluded right there—shout it from the mountaintops—but no, it goes on. From the mouth of a character it would all be one thing, but this is cud you don’t want to see the author chew with his own mouth wide open. One really not worth saving—a sharper editor would have consigned it to the yellowing pages of the March 1992 Esquire. In his lifetime, Salter found admirers as various as Saul Bellow, Teju Cole, Richard Ford, Roxane Gay, Jhumpa Lahiri, Michael Ondaatje, and Susan Sontag, who numbered him “among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read, whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.” While assembled with the respectful intention of not reprinting material published elsewhere, Don’t Save Anything proves that there remains an unpublished, more definitive book of Salter’s essays—one to really affirm his stature as a worker in the medium. In addition to much of what’s here, that book would cull from the travelogues of There & Then and the food writing of Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days (2006), which he wrote together with Kay Eldredge Salter. It would also include what has to be his most fully realized essay: “You Must,” about West Point, originally printed in Esquire, anthologized in Best American Essays 1993, and later modified to become a chapter in Burning the Days (which explains its absence here). A worthy successor to George Orwell’s boarding school nightmare “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “You Must” displays all the gifts that Salter could bring to the table as a writer of nonfiction (“Seventeen, vain, and spoiled by poems, I prepared to enter a remote West Point,” he says by way of introduction). But until the collection appears that can take the whole measure of Salter’s interests—Library of America, are you listening?—we should count our lucky stars that this much more of his work is now so close at hand. It’s one more invitation to wade out into the sea where he plunged himself a full 60 years ago and to which he belongs now, a lifeguard on the horizon signaling that the water is just fine.