Review: ‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

Time's ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have been putting off writing this review of “Time’s Arrow.”

It’s not because I disliked the book. I didn’t. It’s well written (of course; it’s Martin Amis) and thoughtful and even, dare I say it, clever – a tale about a Nazi doctor told in reverse chronological order.

But it’s not because I loved the book, either, and was unable to put my excitement into words.

The thing is, I felt no excitement. I felt admiration, as if watching a magician pulling off a particularly difficult trick, but not excitement. There seemed to be no stakes.

That’s the thing about Amis, at least for me: The man is such a wizard with language, erudite and even astonishing, and yet his facility puts a distance between his subject and me, the reader. He is not visceral or emotional. His abilities are impressive, but cold to the touch.

And with a story like “Time’s Arrow,” I felt he needed some emotion. This isn’t “London Fields” or “Money: A Suicide Note,” in which numerous characters are contemptible or, at least, an easy source of mockery – phony strivers, posh twits or thick-headed chavs. This is about a Nazi doctor — an assistant to a thinly disguised Josef Mengele — who leaves destruction in his wake, though given the book’s conceit, that destruction eerily re-forms into the whole: broken relationships become passionate and innocent; money is refunded for goods and services; shit re-emerges from toilets and is taken back into the body; and, most movingly (or as close as Amis gets to “moving”), ashes recede down chimneys, becoming living, breathing people, who are eventually transported away from Auschwitz and back to their lives of ever-increasing freedoms.

It’s not like Amis doesn’t take his subject seriously. He wrestles with the depths. The main character is introduced as Tod Friendly (his name bestowed by a trafficker named Kreditor); we are guided on his reverse path by what may be his unknowing soul, a spirit careful to note the good things Friendly appears to do. As time is wound back, Friendly works as an illicit doctor in New England, arrives in New York after World War II, hides out in Portugal and eventually is revealed as Odilo Unverdorben, a mediocre medical man with a dim but questioning wife.

The scenes in Auschwitz, which start about two-thirds of the way into the slim book, are harrowing in their detail. “It was I, Odilo Unverdorben, who personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B and entrusted them to the pharmacist in his white coat. Next, the façade of the Sprinklerom, the function of whose spouts and nozzles (and numbered seats and wardrobe tickets, and signs in six or seven languages) was merely to reassure and not, alas, to cleanse; and the garden path beyond.”

The gold removed from prisoners’ teeth is reattached; their hair is brought in, “freight car after freight car,” and put back on their heads; the guards give the women back their rings and valuables and stop their wailing.

It’s powerful stuff. Amis is trying to make sense of what he knows is madness. But in doing so, he reduces it to the clinical. Perhaps this is for the best; there’s a whole body of literature devoted to chronicling the Holocaust and its aftermath, and yet it somehow still resists understanding.

Still, I think of another fictional assembly of details, the passages of Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and I wonder why the lists of items in O’Brien’s work convey such weight and sadness. Maybe it’s because his soldiers have an essential humanity that Unverdorben lacks: “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”

In the end, of course, Unverdorben becomes nothing, a being that enters his mother, “how she will weep and scream.” He is also an infant, his dreams “all colors and noises,” before he will grow up to become a monster – a banal evil that not even Amis can explain.

“Time’s Arrow” is a valiant effort. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be moved and dazzled (well, I was often dazzled). But as I closed the final page, the last thing I wanted to do was start again from the beginning. Sometimes you don’t want to know how the trick is done. And sometimes, you wish it weren’t a trick.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Tom Wolfe, 1930-2018

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326
Image via Rolling Stone.

The story goes that Tom Wolfe, having spent months reporting and not writing a story on car customizing in California, was pressed by Esquire editor Byron Dobell to come up with something, anything, because Esquire had just spent $1,000 on a photograph of some of the cars and was going to run a piece in the next issue. Wolfe had until Friday, Dobell told him; the photograph would go to the engraver on Monday.

On Friday Wolfe called back. He was blocked. Esquire editor Harold Hayes made plans for another Esquire editor to turn Wolfe’s notes into a workable piece. So Dobell told Wolfe to type out his notes.

According to Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty Folks, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: Esquire in the Sixties,” Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. that night. Ten hours later he pulled the last of 49 pages from his typewriter. Dobell pulled the “Dear Byron” salutation, made some minor edits, and the piece ran in full as “There goes (VAROOM! VAROOM!) that Kandy Kolored (THPHHHHHH) tangerine-flake streamline baby (RAHGHHHH!) around the bend (BRUMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM …” (The headline was courtesy of David Newman, who with Esquire pal Robert Benton later wrote the “Bonnie and Clyde” screenplay.)

That Wolfe story has been told in pretty much every Wolfe obit I’ve read today, as the great American author died Tuesday at 88. (Some sources list him as 87.) And no wonder; it’s symbolic of the beginnings of what’s been called the New Journalism, which is the kind of journalism most every journalist aspires to write — not just AP-style inverted pyramids, but colorful, rapturous, liberally punctuated reportage that reads like fiction.

I know I wanted to write like that, and I didn’t even aspire to be a journalist. I just wanted to have one-fourth the zest Wolfe instilled in his works.

Gay Talese may have been more formal — Wolfe could never have gotten away with “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” or that great Joe DiMaggio story in which Marilyn Monroe tells DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering,” and DiMaggio responds, “Yes, I have” — and Wolfe’s New York Herald Tribune colleague Jimmy Breslin may have been more earthy. (Breslin’s story of John F. Kennedy’s gravedigger, written on deadline when the rest of the journalism world was looking in the opposite direction, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I could write like Breslin, too.) And no tribute to Wolfe should be without a tribute to his editors, including Dobell, Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner. Somebody had to let the greyhound run.

But Wolfe, who coupled hyperbole (all those exclamation points!) with such precise detail that it seemed like he lived in his subjects’ lapels, was a style unto himself. (Literally, too.)

He chronicled celebrities and their milieus, but he never wrote the expected hack profile. Tell him to talk about the New Yorker, and he positively sneered at what was then the fattest, richest magazine in America. Let him in to Leonard Bernstein’s Black Panthers fundraiser, and you got “Radical Chic.” Even when he did approach hagiography, as in the portrayals of Chuck Yeager and the Mercury astronauts in “The Right Stuff,” it was leavened with such grit and realism — what they call reporting — that it was earned.

Wolfe could drive me crazy. Sometimes, particularly after he became the regularly best-selling brand name Tom Wolfe, his reported essays approached polemics. I share his dismal opinion of Brutalism, for example, but his shots in “From Bauhaus to Our House” feel gratuitous.

The same attitude could infect his novels. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” his debut novel, had a brilliant eye for ’80s New York, but upon my rereading it a few years ago its characters were revealed as cardboard cutouts. “A Man in Full,” his expansive novel set partly in my longtime hometown of Atlanta, managed to miss the more cosmopolitan aspects of what is admittedly still a provincial place — of course, so is New York in its own way — and also had one of his characters making an impossible trip from Midtown to Buckhead. (There’s poetic license, but should it carry over to making Piedmont Avenue one-way in the wrong direction?)

By the time I finished “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” I thought he’d let his reporting become almost superfluous, a few glittering details he could attach to laments on the demise of Western civilization.

Still, the glittering details and the language was what mattered, so that’s not taking much away from a man whose descriptions of clothes, accessories, vehicles, housing, and even genitalia bordered on the fetishistic, they were so rich. (It’s no wonder his phrases — “Me Decade,” “the right stuff,” “radical chic” — entered the lexicon.) In doing so, he captured whole worlds — often those of the wealthy, but also those of the rest of us, scrambling to climb the American ladder. Indeed, Wolfe’s works, taken together, were nothing else if not the story of the United States in the last chunk of the 20th century.

All in all, it makes for one hell of a story. I’m glad Wolfe got to write so much of it.

RIP, Doctor.

Review: ‘The Library’ by Stuart Kells

The Library: A Catalogue of WondersThe Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I approached Stuart Kells’ “The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders” warily. A book about books and book collecting? As much as I love books, I had little desire to lose myself in 250-odd pages about ancients, eccentrics and the vagaries of printing if the narrator came off as too pleased with himself, as bibliophiles sometimes do. (Listen, I resemble that remark.) Even the publishing business could be made dull, as I found with Robert Gottlieb’s tedious “Avid Reader.”

I needn’t have worried. Kells’ book is generally engaging and breezy, and at its best when the author is digging into his prodigious knowledge of the literary trade – doing so without being too high-flown about it.

“The Library” starts out slowly, as it must – since libraries are a relatively recent invention, dependent as they are on a written language and portability. (It’s not like they could house a battalion of griots and bards. Who would feed them?) So early libraries – those of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians – contained clay tablets (often kept on trays) and rolls of papyrus. All were handwritten, of course; Gutenberg doesn’t enter the picture until the 15th century, which makes the achievements of the scribes and monks of previous millennia all the more amazing.

Also amazing, in a sad way, is how much literature has been lost. Though there weren’t thousands of copies of the same work, copies were made and held in famed libraries such as the one at Alexandria, as well as in private homes. But fires, looting and natural disaster took their tolls. It’s astonishing, frankly, we have as much as we do; some books were saved purely by chance, found in garbage pits or smuggled by explorers.

Still, it’s in the post-Gutenberg age that Kells, an Australian-born book-trade historian who’s written a history of Penguin Books, really comes into his own, because it’s here when the “The Library” becomes as much about people as it does about books. And people who are fond of books are certainly an odd lot.

Take diarist Samuel Pepys. He “could not tolerate even the slightest deviation from straightness,” Kells writes. “Pepys had even less patience for the ragged line that occurs when books of different heights are shelved together. He commissioned tailor-made blocks – little wooden plinths disguised with leather – and placed them under his books so that the tops would be exactly even.”

Related are bibliophiles who purchase books that are precisely the width of the space on their shelves. I can’t help but be reminded of the rock star played by Daniel Stern in “Hannah and Her Sisters” who wants to buy a painting from Max von Sydow’s artist not because of his talent, but because his giant works will fill Stern’s walls and match his décor. “You don’t buy paintings to blend in with the sofa!” thunders von Sydow.

Despite – or perhaps because of – these folks, libraries flourish. Thomas Bodley wanted to establish a library at Oxford; thus was born the Bodleian, which tripled its collection just three years after it opened in the early 17th century. The Vatican has a renowned library that’s actually not as mysterious as reputation would have it, Kells says, though its aura hasn’t hurt its collection. There are libraries devoted to Shakespeare (Washington, D.C.’s, Folger, established by a Standard Oil executive) and libraries that disdained Shakespeare (Tolstoy was apparently not a fan).

They’re also beautiful buildings. Kells devotes several pages to J.P. Morgan’s marble pile in Manhattan; when Morgan died in 1913, half his fortune was tied up in the library’s collection of books and art. (Morgan’s library also benefited from having a great librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, a colorful character who seems worthy of a book in her own right.)

Still, what is to become of libraries in this digital age? Kells addresses that topic, too, though not as energetically as he does the library overseen by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins and other characters in Middle-earth. (I’m not a “Lord of the Rings” fan, so the Tolkien excursion went on for a few pages too long.) He makes passing mention of Nicholson Baker’s “Double Fold,” a book about book and newspaper destruction, and notes that digital conversion of books is no answer to retaining knowledge, since there’s no guarantee discs or computer memory will last as long as well-preserved paper – or be as readable, books such as the Voynich manuscript to the contrary. (We won’t even talk about card catalogs.) Still, he leaves the question hanging. Let someone else write a book about new uses for libraries; for Kells, they’re places to hold written volumes.

Near the beginning of “The Library,” Kells tells the story of Jorge Luis Borges, who turned an unhappy interlude working at a Buenos Aires library into “The Library of Babel,” his famed short story about a library that contains an infinite number of books, where the sheer yawning expanse of the collection provokes religious arguments and even suicide. Later, Borges became the head of the city’s National Library, where he was much happier. It wasn’t the books Borges loathed; it was the people and tedium at his old job. Fortunately, Kells’ “Library” offers more of the joy of books than the dreariness. I wonder what he’d think of Robert Gottlieb’s work.

View all my reviews

Review: ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review of “The Underground Railroad” contains what might be considered spoilers. At least they were to me. For that, you can blame Google.

Now, it was not my intention to run into spoilers when I began reading Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I knew little of the book besides what I’d read in reviews when it came out: that it was about the journey of a runaway Georgia slave in the mid-19th century on an Underground Railroad made flesh — a genuine subterranean track of steel and locomotives and hidden train stations and clandestine conductors. That was enough; I got caught up in it very easily.

But about a third of the way into the book, Cora, the runaway, enters a South Carolina fantastically different from the one I was familiar with from school. At this point, Whitehead made a reference to a 12-story structure called the Griffin Building.

This started me down an Internet rabbit hole. I understood the literary license of an altered South Carolina, but having some familiarity with the state — and a fascination with skyscrapers — I started to wonder where this Griffin Building was and if it still existed. Did I walk by it in Charleston? Was it in Columbia? Greenville? What happened to it? And could such a building have existed in the South of the 1850s, before the days of common safety elevators? It sounded like a fascinating story in itself.

(The spoilers start here.)

Curiosity having gotten the better of me, I typed “Griffin Building” into Google. Foolish me. Immediately, I got referred to … reviews and synopses of “The Underground Railroad.”

In other words, there IS no Griffin Building. Whitehead made it up, like Ralph Ellison did with the paint factory in “Invisible Man.”

And thus, in a tiny way, broke the spell the book had cast over me.

This wasn’t a terrible thing, not like having a friend reveal that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father before you see “The Empire Strikes Back.” (For the three people who haven’t seen “The Empire Strikes Back,” sorry. Would it help if I didn’t tell you about Rosebud?) Nevertheless, it was mildly disappointing, because until that point, aside from the Underground Railroad itself, I thought Whitehead’s book was more anchored in reality than metaphor – and I was completely absorbed in that reality.

This is largely because of the opening section of the book, a tour de force chronicle of the Middle Passage and plantation life.

I haven’t read much in the way of slave narratives or antebellum histories, but I can’t remember reading a more casually incisive description of American slavery. In Whitehead’s brutal storytelling, you never forget that slaves are seen as barely animate property; the owners and overseers call the enslaved “it,” coolly erasing their humanity in one word. They’re whipped and raped and degraded. Their only value is as field workers or concubines.

I struggled to get through that opening portion. Not because of the writing – which is uniformly brilliant – but because of the characters’ cruelty, rooted in history, sharp edges showing.

Cora, the character at the heart of the novel, is the daughter of a slave named Mabel, who had fled their plantation when Cora was a child. The abandoned Cora finally bolts herself, as much in pursuit of her mother as freedom. She and Caesar, another slave, make their way to a stop on the Railroad, with slavecatchers led by the grim Ridgeway in pursuit.

From here, Whitehead’s South becomes a combination of reality and dream (or nightmare, depending on the action). The unnamed South Carolina town, which appears to treat blacks well – at least, they are allowed jobs and reasonable housing – turns out to be a cover for an insidious plot. Cora then escapes to North Carolina, where she is housed in a tiny attic crawl space (shades of Anne Frank) and watches a daily display in which blacks and their white helpers are tortured and put to death amid a cheery, “Music Man”-type gathering. (Or, perhaps, “The Lottery.”)

Then it’s to Tennessee, where she’s caught by Ridgeway and his bizarre band. There’s one more escape – to a utopian community in Indiana – and a final showdown with Ridgeway.

Whitehead’s metaphorical plotting has a point: He’s tracing a path of African-American history, in Cora’s stops obliquely referencing the Scottsboro Boys, the Ku Klux Klan and perhaps a cross of Back to Africa with New Harmony or Oneida. Thanks to Whitehead’s imaginative gifts, the book’s atmosphere is constantly energized.

But there also seems to be a bit of 19th-century dime novel in the book as well. Ridgeway, in particular, comes across as a kind of Bond villain, an almost-cultured man capable of brisk violence as well as a taunting patience. Even when he’s off stage, you know he’s going to emerge for a final battle, like a monster in a horror movie.

“The Underground Railroad” concludes on a rather inconclusive note, as if Whitehead is saying a future of reconciliation and equality, after all this injustice, is not yet written. (He’s right, of course.) It’s both somewhat unsatisfying and absolutely appropriate.

Which gets back to my Googling and spoiler revelations, which felt like a spell being broken. It’s a spell that would have broken anyway – by the end of the South Carolina chapter, it’s obvious that Whitehead is using a kind of magical (metaphorical?) realism to tell his tale – but I wondered when I would have figured that out for myself, rather than through perusing year-old reviews.

But maybe that’s appropriate, too. Americans have too often told stories of slavery and the Old South that soften the reality, whether it’s through singing darkies or noble plantation owners or the so-called Lost Cause. But no amount of magic can remove the stain of slavery – and racism — on American history. So despite its touch of the unreal, “The Underground Railroad” always has a hard reality, just below the surface. It’s one we’re still grappling with more than 150 years later.

View all my reviews

Review: ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire’ by Kurt Andersen

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year HistoryFantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History by Kurt Andersen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every generation has its observers who think things are bad and getting worse. Usually mass media has something to do with it: Neil Postman believed we were “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” while Nicholas Carr wrote a whole book about how we were drowning in “The Shallows” of the Internet.

Frankly, I think they’re right.

It’s not for nothing that one of my all-time favorite movies is “Network,” which has more prescient words (usually delivered by Peter Finch as Mad Prophet of the Airwaves Howard Beale) than an encyclopedia of predictions. I think the end is coming, and we’re bringing it on ourselves.

“Woe is us! We’re in a lot of trouble!” railed Beale in 1976 in Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Because, he explains, “less than three percent of you people read books. Because less than fifteen percent of you read newspapers. Because the only truth you know is what you get over this tube. Right now, there is a whole, an entire generation that never knew anything that didn’t come out of this tube. This tube is the Gospel. The ultimate revelation! This tube can make or break Presidents, Popes, Prime Ministers. This tube is the most awesome, goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.”

That’s happened, of course. Television – particularly television news, because at least the storytelling part of TV got better since the days of “Kojak” – is in the hands of large corporations who need ratings and advertising dollars, and the best way to accomplish that is with outrage and emotion.

That’s especially true of cable news. CNN manages to undercut its worthy journalism with flashy graphics, overly dramatic anchors and those infuriating he said-she said panels that expand nothing besides the egos of its members. Most of Fox News, especially its nightly commentary shows (which too many people confuse with “news”), insists that the country is being destroyed by a cabal of whomever its audience believes is most threatening – people of color, environmentalists, coastal academics, Democrats. (Oh, if only W.E.B. Du Bois were still alive to frighten them today.)

And the Internet? Never has so much bad information been so readily available to so many who will believe so much. Did you know that Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim socialist? Or David Rockefeller had seven heart transplants? If it’s online, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln said that. (Unless, of course, it’s “fake news,” which is defined as anything Donald Trump doesn’t like.)

Into this hopeless chasm plunges Kurt Andersen, Spy magazine co-founder, former Time magazine reporter and current “Studio 360” host. His “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” attempts to figure out how this great experiment of a country decided to forget about objective reality in favor of truthiness.

He generally blames the twin strands that have shaped America from its beginnings: religion and money.

The latter helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. And the former helped create generations of con men, fakery and extremist personalities. We’ve never shaken off either, and these days the two are more powerful (and bound together) than ever.

After all, the Puritans weren’t exactly welcoming, even-tempered colonists – and they begat Anne Hutchinson, who Andersen observes tried to be more pure than the Puritans. A fanatical anti-intellectual, she defamed ministers and believed she was guided by the Holy Spirit. Andersen sees a direct connection between her and many Americans of today: “Hutchinson is so American because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” he writes.

She was exiled, but then so were so many other religious groups that have woven their threads into the American fabric. Many of them are now accepted, because in America that’s what we believe in, even if we yell and scream about it.

You may think Andersen is just talking about the Religious Right, which has distrusted science and reason in favor of Bronze Age storytelling. And he does have harsh words for them. But he also rips into the left, including self-aggrandizing psychiatrists, New Age searchers and anti-establishment hippies. In fact, it’s that ‘60s concept of “find your own truth” that ends up being the sword brandished by the right wing in promulgating THEIR own truths.

So everybody ends up in the muck.

Andersen makes a number of good points in “Fantasyland,” but – ironically – he has too much to work with. After a first half setting things up, the second half of the book becomes a polemic, with Andersen plowing through megachurches, chemtrails, vaccinations, guns, the underbelly of the Internet and, of course, the Short-Fingered Vulgarian himself – the logical outgrowth of all this fantasy. It’s powerful and distressing stuff, but it’s almost too much. Better – if that’s the right word – was Charles P. Pierce’s more studied take in “Idiot America,” or Jon Ronson’s inquisitive “Them.”

Andersen’s writing style also leaves something to be desired. He has a tendency to write crescendoed, Tom Wolfe-ian sentences, which can curdle into Tom Wolfe-ian irritability when the book enters its polemic stages. (I like Tom Wolfe, but he generally knows when to exercise control.) Worse, I lost count of the amount of times Andersen would describe some historical personage without giving his or her name – ever. “The owner of the Hollywood Reporter,” “a chemist designing life-detection instruments for NASA’s Viking mission,” “a former actor and screenwriter who’d published a bestseller about her LSD experiences” – these may be minor characters in Andersen’s history, but they have names, and it’s Journalism 101 to provide them, even if nobody knows who they are.

Still, I enjoyed much of “Fantasyland,” if “enjoyed” is the right word for listening to an increasingly frantic author ponder a country circling the drain. However, you may want to have a movie handy to counter the sinking feeling you have when you finish.

I recommend “Idiocracy.”

View all my reviews

Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

View all my reviews

Review: ‘Devil’s Bargain’ by Joshua Green

Devil's Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the PresidencyDevil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by Joshua Green

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most important sentence in “Devil’s Bargain,” Joshua Green’s book about Steve Bannon and his role in getting Donald Trump elected president, isn’t about either Bannon or Trump, but about something more general: communications.

“As the world was learning,” Green concludes a section on Trump the audience savant, “television and politics were not so different.”

I’d like to add, neither are politics and professional wrestling. Or politics and the post-broadband Internet. These days, they all seem to reward short attention spans, black-and-white thinking (literally so, given our level of discourse on race) and tribalism.

So much for #MAGA.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book since seeing Green’s article about Bannon on Bloomberg last year. At the time, Bannon struck me as a scary character, a smart guy who had a particular populist right-wing ideology (one which, it should seem obvious, I generally disagree with) and the shrewdness to spread it widely. “Devil’s Bargain” expands on much of that, and its most interesting sections are less about Bannon than how he recognized some of the movements of our time.

For example, video games. Back in 2005, Bannon left a job with a Hollywood agency to join a Hong Kong-based company that wanted to effectively monetize the “gold farming” engaged in by “World of Warcraft” players. In short, though the weapons and valuables in “World of Warcraft” are mere pixels, people were willing to pay real money for them. The company Bannon joined failed — the maker of “World of Warcraft” frowned on gold farming and found ways to crush it — but Bannon recognized an entirely untapped market, boy-men who lived almost entirely in cyberspace.

“If you trace a line backward from Trump’s election, it doesn’t take long before you encounter online networks of motivated gamers and message-board denizens such as the ones who populate Trump-crazed boards like 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit,” Green writes. These are the folks who live for the lulz, concoct nasty (should I say deplorable?) memes and enjoy trolling more than actually engaging in real life.

So much for Silicon Valley’s high-minded view of human nature.

Then there is how “The Apprentice” burnished Trump’s image. Now, anyone who lived within shouting distance of New York from about 1985 to the mid-2000s probably thought of Donald Trump as a buffoon, a guy who couldn’t even make a profit on a casino. But he was always on the cover of the New York tabloids — the guy could move newspapers — and that’s what initially helped him become the face of the NBC reality show. (I recall an interview with Jeff Zucker, then an NBC executive and now CNN’s president, about how he noticed Trump always helped sell copies of the New York Post, so let’s put him on a reality show. And thus we end up with a real-life version of “A Face in the Crowd.” Thanks, Jeff!) “The Apprentice” literally made Trump bankable, and with an interesting market: minorities.

Green again:

“[The producers] did a wonderful job of showing America as it was even then: multiethnic, multiracial, and multigenerational,” said [ad agency head Monique] Nelson. … The popularity extended to Trump himself, who, according to private demographic research conducted at the time, was even more popular with African Americans and Hispanic viewers than he was with Caucasian audiences.

Finally, there was Breitbart News, which Bannon took over after the death of its namesake, right-wing rabble-rouser Andrew Breitbart. Like Trump, Breitbart made no apologies when it got the story wrong, as long as it moved the applause (or outrage) needle. “Narrative truth was his priority rather than factual truth,” said one editor of Bannon.

Which is pretty much the story of how cable TV news, abetted by the Internet, helped put Trump over the top. What other candidate got airtime for his (or her) every speech? The ratings were good, and as CBS’ Les Moonves noted, everybody was making money. (Thanks, Les!) What Trump said — or meant (I’m not sure I know the difference) — didn’t matter. He was gold. I’m reminded of a Ronald Reagan staffer, who thanked a news broadcast for showing the president surrounded by a perfect scene (no doubt arranged by the masterful Michael Deaver) despite the bad news that prompted the story. After all, a picture was worth a thousand words — and the actual news was drowned out by the images.

Trump, simply by force of personality, took that to the next level. Nothing he’d done — the bankruptcies, the lack of issue knowledge, the stories about his poor behavior — could overcome his sheer entertainment value. Add that to the country’s anger and Hillary Clinton’s own faults, and he had just enough to squeak over the line. (Whoops! I meant “win by the biggest landslide in the history of the world.”)

This doesn’t downplay Bannon’s brilliance — or Trump’s shrewdness. Bannon has had his share of setbacks, but he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time (he made a mint out of “Seinfeld,” though he only took a piece of the then-struggling show because not taking it would blow a deal) and having the right friends (Green has an interesting, if slightly disturbing, portrait of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who underwrote Breitbart and helped fund aspects of Trump’s campaign). His philosophy was the right fit for the time. As for the Only President We Have, he’s long valued the reach of the press — whether it’s for him or agin him — and he has a remarkable ability to get and hold attention, like a 12-year-old firing spitballs from the back of the class while calling the civics teacher “Mr. Poopypants.”

Ironically, “Devil’s Bargain” loses steam as the 2016 campaign heats up, perhaps because it’s too soon to go deep. But the other three-quarters are well worth your time. That is, if you still have an attention span left.

View all my reviews

The towns, the cities and Trump

251-0dad7da1c6769ef225313dd272c06be4
Image from kinziehotel.com.

Love this article in the latest New York magazine examining the growing political split between city and country. (Even Boise, Idaho, had some overwhelming Democratic strongholds.) It makes a point that hasn’t been talked about enough: That it wasn’t so long ago that cities, now considered overwhelmingly Democratic, once leaned Republican, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Columbus, Ohio.

What changed? Many things, author Justin Davidson writes. If white flight hollowed out cities in the ’70s — with suburbs becoming GOP bastions — revitalized downtowns have brought in new influxes of multicultural and youthful residents in recent years. That’s also made inner-ring suburbs more Democratic. (And, yes, many cities have also become more expensive and less affordable for the middle class — but gentrification is a topic for another day.)

But, for me, perhaps the most intriguing detail Davidson unearths is the importance of mass transit in forging liberal bonds:

Density makes towns more liberal. So does public transit. A band of dark, Clinton-heavy blue follows the Metra commuter rail line from downtown Chicago south to University Park, where it dead-ends in a field of red. Milwaukee’s bus system extends west to 124th Street and north to the county line, and those borders define political boundaries, too: Beyond the bus routes, the map turns from blue to red, literalizing Wisconsin’s dramatic divide. In the Bay Area, tendrils of blue radiate out along train tracks into the deep-red heartland of the San Joaquin Valley. Interstate 5 runs north-south without disturbing the political landscape, but 40 miles east, Amtrak links Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield — each one an isolated dab of blue.

It’s not clear what accounts for this political force field that weakens with every mile from City Hall but that’s carried from center to center along transit lines. Do people with strong political views choose to live in like-minded communities, or do the places people choose to live form their opinions about how society should work? Which comes first: real estate or ideology? Either way, the dynamic behaves like an ideological centrifuge, distributing liberals and conservatives in complex but not random patterns.

One of the overall questions of the article is how Donald Trump, born and raised in New York, became so appealing to — and, to some extent, part of — an anti-urban and generally Republican crowd. One of Davidson’s suggestions is that Trump has seldom has had to mix with the city in which he made his name — he’s spent his life in private cars, limos and helicopters. He also came up in 1970s New York, when the city was a poster child for decay. (I’ve seen it written elsewhere that he also grew up talking to the outer-borough hardhats employed by his father, real-life Archie Bunkers who watched New York’s ’60s and ’70s decline and disapproved of its increasingly polyglot politics.)

If only he’d ridden the E and F trains more often. Or maybe he did and they looked like the ones in “The Warriors.”

Review: ‘Poisoning the Press’ by Mark Feldstein

Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal CulturePoisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture by Mark Feldstein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am fascinated by Richard Nixon.

The man is straight out of Shakespeare — sometimes Iago, sometimes Lear, sometimes (in his better, though rare, moments) Prince Hal himself. (Never Falstaff, though.) Nobody doubts his brilliance or cunning, but oh, what venality. He could never get over the contempt he had for the kinds of people LBJ called “the Harvards” — those golden boys who effortlessly controlled the levers of power and sneered at awkward ladder-climbers like Richard Nixon.

Mark Feldstein’s “Poisoning the Press” pairs Nixon with one of his fiercest critics, muckraking columnist Jack Anderson. In Anderson, Nixon had more than a foe in the media — he had someone who was surprisingly like the 37th president himself. Like Nixon, Anderson had a ne’er-do-well brother and a fractious relationship with his father; like Nixon, Anderson was a working-class striver; like Nixon, Anderson grew fond of a wealthy lifestyle at the expense of his ethics. (One of Anderson’s early gets had to do with payoffs Nixon received from rich benefactors. Anderson would later sacrifice much of his regard for money.)

Naturally, the two became mortal enemies.

Continue reading