Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Julie Schumacher, _Dear Committee Members_

I HAD TO stop reading this for a few weeks when I was about a third of the way in--it was just too sad. Not as sad as John Williams's Stoner, perhaps; the unlucky English professor in Schumacher's novel is often his own worst enemy, given to angry hyperbole, airing of old grievances, and intemperate rants of all kinds, and thus not nearly as sympathetic or as cruelly thwarted as poor Prof. Stoner. But little to nothing has gone as it was supposed to go for Jason Fitger, and seeing him make his bad situation worse from week to week is rough if you identify with him a little, as I, Lord help me, do.

Schumacher has hit on the extraordinary device of revealing Fitger's works and days through an epistolary novel that is all recommendation letters, all of them by Fitger, written over the course of one academic year. Most of the letters are on behalf of current or former students desperately hoping to catch on somewhere in a professional world that has little regard for the humanities in which they have been trained.

Fitger writes many letters on behalf of Darren Browles, a doctoral candidate, whose success Fitger hopes will revive the floundering graduate creative writing program he heads. Browles has been working away for years on a massive historical novel in which Melville's scrivener Bartleby works in a bordello. Unsurprisingly, every editor, agent, foundation, and writer's colony Fitger tries to interest in Browles takes a pass.

In his letters, Fitger seems unable to stop himself from diving tangentially into such topics as the decline of the humanities, the parlous state of the English department's facilities, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriends, his clueless department chair, his several-bricks-shy-of-a-load colleagues, and...you get the picture. In his letters, he's a complaint machine with a gift for invective, the principal power of which seems to be to worsen his own situation. Everyone is pissed off at him, and as readers, we know exactly why.

We also gradually learn about his past, his apprenticeship in the legendary workshop of H. Reginald Hanf (which seems to have the status of being a Stegner Fellow, say, or working with Gordon Lish), the friends and enemies he made there, the tell-all roman à clef he wrote about it, and so on, leading to his now-ended marriage, his appointment at Payne University (too obvious a touch, maybe--the chair is named Boti), and the mess he generally is in.

But the clouds clear a bit towards the end. For all his cantankerousness, Fitger is generous, does really value the humanities, and sincerely hopes to help his students. Thanks to Fitger's letters, one of them hits it big with a novel about a human-cheetah hybrid, and an old friend, a shy man but a conscientious craftsman, gets a spot in a writers' colony. No such luck for Browles--his fate resembles John Kennedy Toole's, without much prospect for posthumous vindication. But Fitger does struggle towards some kind of reconciliation  with his exes, with his former colleagues in the workshop, and even gets voted chair of the department. Now, I have immediate and empirical cause to know that becoming chair of an English department is not the very happiest of endings, but Schumacher gives us at least a little dry, firm land after this often brinily hilarious march through Fitger's Slough of Despond.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

David Runciman, _The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present_

LIKE A GOOD many people, perhaps including yourself, I spent a portion of last summer dutifully doing my best to read Thomas Piketty's Capital, getting not quite two hundred pages in. Well, I tried. Perhaps I will finish next summer, too late to be altogether au courant, but it's been a good while (decades!) since I was even close to being au courant, so I may as well just relax and not have a panic attack about it. I hope we are of one mind on that.

I did, however, manage to read this--comparatively a romp at 326 pages, lucid, witty,  illuminating, and buzz-worthy, not that I noticed it getting a lot of buzz. I think of it in conjunction with Capital because much of the power of Piketty's book (I read enough to discern) was his ability to combine his extraordinary sophistication as an economist with an historian's patient perseverance in working through an enormous archive, and Runciman's book is persuasive because of his ability to combine his expertise as a political scientist with a nuanced grasp of twentieth century history.

Runciman's book springs from Tocqueville's insights (have I mentioned that I love Democracy in America? I do, reader, I do) into what democracies tend not to do well. One, they are bad at solving deep, long-term problems, because democratic politicians have difficulty seeing beyond the horizon of the next election; two, they are fumbling and inefficient in the early stages of any crisis, because they do not have the total, speedy, centralized authority of dictators.

He then looks at seven twentieth century crises (involving a suddenly emerging threat, or a need to think about the long-term, or both) and tries to understand how democracy, despite its disadvantages, was able to pull its chestnuts out of the fire in time: the aftermath of World War, the Great Depression, the aftermath of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Soviet bloc and later the USSR itself, and the 2008 slump.

Runciman has sufficiently mastered the history of these crises to narrate them briskly and analyze them cogently. In each instance, democracy avoided catastrophe. What he wants to emphasize, though, is that it was by no means inevitable that democracy would succeed. Democracies can fail, and he also shows how narrowly it sometimes escaped failing in these crises.

Hence his title. A record of success can persuade us that democracy will always find a solution, whatever the problem, and that politicians will get what they have to get done when they absolutely have to.  This can make us complacent, and complacency could be our undoing:

   So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. Both sides [i.e., Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Tories] play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which they become lethal.

Runciman points to four contemporary challenges--militarization, financial regulation, climate change, and the new economic power of China--of the sort that democracy tends to fudge, defer, or ignore. Democracy may very well be able to meet these challenges, but we  should not assume that the solutions will come about of themselves, out of a complacent conviction that democracy is just that good. That is the "confidence trap." Democracies, even ours, can fail, if we forget there is no one at the tiller but ourselves.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates, _The Accursed_

MICHAEL DIRDA IS not a reviewer whose advice I normally heed, but I was just finishing up an independent  study with three enthusiastic students of the classic Gothic novels when he praised both this and Oates's latest, Carthage, in the NYRB, quoting Stephen King's opinion that The Accursed is "the world's finest postmodern Gothic novel."

I was unlikely ever to be better positioned to appreciated a Gothic novel, for one thing, and since Oates is a "major American writer" according to Dirda and quite a few other people, it was high time I read one of her books, no? So, The Accursed it was.

Oates is, so far as I can tell, not a big deal in my (essentially academic) world; certainly not as big a deal as Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, who outgun her 3- or 4-to-1 in an EBSCO peer-reviewed article search, nor as big a deal in the MFA world as Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, Thomas Bernhard, and so on. She gets admiring reviews and sells well, but she does not get assigned at the pace that even Sandra Cisneros does. Is academia unfair to JCO?

Not so unfair as all that, I would answer, on the basis of this novel...which was interesting enough to finish, though, and that is saying something at 667 pages. A mysterious evil plagues the leading families of the village of Princeton, NJ, in 1905-06, and one gradually susses that straight white elite class males, complacently wallowing in unexamined privilege since 1776, are inclined to interpret the mounting claims of women, the working class, ethnic minorities, gays, and other marginalized folks as demonic  possession, an evil fit that has to be valiantly combated but will eventually pass. No such luck, as the subsequent history of the 20th century will show.

A really good idea--but a 600+ idea? It wore a little thin at that length, I thought. For one thing, most of the book is narrated by local historian M. W. Van Dyck, to whom Oates has given a Polonius-like rotundity of phrase and intellectual vapidity that is, while appropriate, wearying unto death. I needed frequent breaks from the prose of Mr. Van Dyck. For another thing, Upton Sinclair's writing of The Jungle is loosely knit into the novel, and Oates's vision of Sinclair seemed to me several degrees less insightful than of Chris Bachelder in U.S.!

I should probably read another Oates (one of the realistic ones--but which?) before I permanently assign her to my personal reader's limbo of don't-bother, but next time I need a dollop of American Gothic, it's Shirley Jackson for me.