Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Michael Lewis, _The Fifth Risk_

IT SEEMED ALTOGETHER fitting to read this right after Ben Fountain's book on the election that landed Trump in the White House, and doing so allowed me to spot an interesting coincidence. Hunter S. Thompson seemed to hover as tutelary spirit over Beautiful Country Burn Again, and The Fifth Risk is dedicated to the recently deceased Tom Wolfe.

It was a novel thing for me to hold Thompson and Wolfe in a single thought, but maybe it should not have been; I bet everyone of my generation who read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the two writers were often cited together as leading lights of the New Journalism back when that was a thing.

They must have crossed paths, perhaps often. What happened when they did? (Puts me in mind of that story of the one time Joyce met Proust.) Thompson in leather jacket and aviator shades, Wolfe in a white bespoke suit with cufflinks and...spats, possibly. What would they have talked about? Maybe the Hell's Angels?

Everything I've  read by Lewis has been excellent, and this is no exception. In contrast to Wolfe (and to Thompson, for that matter), he is utterly self-effacing. He must be an amazing interviewer--whoever he talks to, the reader feels that person is right there in the room with you, explaining with perfect lucidity some phenomenon you did not previously even know existed, but now seems fascinating.

The gist of the book is that many, perhaps most, of Trump's appointees found themselves running departments whose work they did previously know even existed. They tended to come in with the idea that most federal operations were cumbersome, intrusive, overfunded trespasses upon the swift efficiencies of the free market. Turns out the National Weather Service, the USDA, DARPA, et al., do all sorts of invaluable work that the free market would not go near because the work is difficult to render profitable. The exact nature of that work--its complexity, the unusual expertise it requires, the commitment  to public service it demands of those who do it--is what we learn about from Lewis's interview subjects.

The title? The "fifth risk" is "the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions." Short-term solutions are what you are likely to get when those in the government making decisions are ideologically committed to dismantling government. I only hope the federal government's work is not plummeting to hell in a handbasket quite so rapidly as this book suggests it is likely to be.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Ben Fountain, _Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution_

AS FAR AS I knew, Ben Fountain was a fiction writer, and an extremely good one (see LLL, April 26, 2014), but someone at the Guardian apparently figured out he had some wicked journalist chops as well, and he got the gig of covering the 2016 U.S. presidential election for one of England's premier newspapers. This book collects nine of them and adds three more essay/articles, as well as a series of passages called "Book of Days," one for each month of 2016, compiling what was in the news at the time.  

Occasionally helpful though they are, and yielding the odd juicy juxtaposition, the "Book of Days" sections began to wear on me. The Guardian articles, however, still pack a punch, and remarkably all the more so for our knowing the grisly conclusion coming up ahead.

Just on the strength of the writing, I would say Beautiful Country Burn Again is the best campaign writing I have come across since Hunter S. Thompson's 1972 dispatches for Rolling Stone, later published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson gets a nice shout-out in the piece titled "Cheerleaders of the Star-Spangled Apocalypse," and justly so, but I would go so far as to say that I found Fountain's work a bit better suited to my current sensibilities. Much as I enjoyed, at the age of eighteen, the hallucinatory passages Thompson wove into his reportage, I did not much miss them at age sixty-four, and Fountain's general political outlook is (thankfully) a bit less anarcho-libertarian, a bit more principled social-democratic, than Thompson's.

If you have already read the Guardian pieces, the book is still worth picking up for a couple of a long pieces: the ninety-page "Iowa 2016: Riding the Roadkill Express," on the ever-lengthier, ever-more-intense, ever-more-dubious first stage of our presidential politics, and the fifty-page "Hillary Doesn't Live Here Anymore," a disquieting analysis of the depth of Senator Clinton's connections to Wall Street.

(I wonder if the Hillary piece did not appear in the Guardian out of some sense that the fall of 2016 was the wrong time to be jumping on Clinton--if that is the case, one can be grateful to Fountain for his tact, damning though the piece is.)

The book's final piece, "A Familiar Spirit," about the persistence of militant white supremacy in our politics, is also new and also worth having.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Michael Ondaatje, _Warlight_

I WAS ABOUT to begin by noting that I had not read any of Ondaatje's novels, but on looking at the list of books beside the title page of Warlight, I see Coming Through Slaughter is listed under "Prose," along with The English Patient, Anil's Ghost, and so on, so perhaps it counts as a novel. At the time, I thought it was a lot like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (the other Ondaatje book I have read), that is, a fantasia in lyrical prose about a historical figure, but that volume is listed under "Poetry." So--

--let's just say I have not read the novel that made Ondaatje famous nor any of its successors. Way back when, I thought about picking up The English Patient, but unfortunately I saw the movie first and thought, enhh. I must have scratched Ondaatje off my list at that point. When our book club picked this one, I was not at all keen.

Turns out it's excellent, which makes me wonder if I should go back to English Patient and the others after all.

It's a first-person novel; soon after the close of World War II, our narrator, a London teenager named Nathaniel, and his sister are inexplicably abandoned by their parents and looked after by an odd but fascinating collection of folks (including "The Moth" and "The Darter"), who eventually begin including Nathaniel and sister in nocturnal activities of obscure purpose, until near-catastrophe strikes and the siblings have to be rescued from the deadly attentions of special agents from somewhere.

Pretty cool, eh? That's just the first part. Nathaniel's sister, Rachel, harbors a long-lasting grudge against their parents, especially their mother, for the abandonment, but Nathaniel recalls it as dazzling, mysterious initiation into adulthood, including his introduction to sex, with a young woman on a moonlit night in an old house full of dogs.

About a decade on, Nathaniel gets a job in the British intelligence service and takes advantage of his access to secret files to find out exactly what his mother was up to. His father, it turns out, was just plain skipping out, a bit of a ne'er-do-well, but his mother was actually a hero, performing not only extremely valuable service in the war but also extremely dangerous service in the early days of the cold war, and doing everything possible at the same time (appearances notwithstanding) for her children, even while under constant threat of assassination (a threat eventually fulfilled).

The narration in the second half of the book thus gradually unfolds the story that was within and underneath the story of the first half of the book; while Nathaniel's emancipatory adolescent adventure was going on, his mother was in a life-and-death, Balkans version of the Great Game.

An unstated moral seems to be wafting through the final pages, something about how unrealizable, how unknowable the lives of those who fought the Second World War had to be for their children, growing up in the prosperity and opportunities of the 1950s and 1960s. The moral is subtly introduced, but it's there, and it bears pondering.

Terrance Hayes, _American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin_

DOES DU BOIS'S CONCEPT of "double consciousness" apply to the relationship of African-American poets to the poetic traditions of the European continent, as digested by English poets and U. S. poets of European descent? Or--to narrow the question--is an African-American poet in a position to simply write a sonnet, without bearing in my mind that the form has for centuries been elaborated within a culture that regards him/her as other? Or does that African-American poet need to maintain some critical, even subversive distance from the form even while practicing it, even while drawing some strength from engaging in a tradition that can serve as a wily and infinitely resourceful collaborator?

The single-consciousness strategy we might associate with Phyllis Wheatley, from whom Hayes distances himself in the book's very first poem--

The black poet would love to say his century began
With Hughes, or God forbid, Wheatley, but actually
It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors,
Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset
bridges & windows.

--so Hughes and Wheatley are in there, but so (it sounds like) are fellow sonneteers Hart Crane and John Berryman, not to mention Plath, Dickinson, Rilke, and the late great Wanda Coleman, who gets a lovely shout-out in the acknowledgements. Hayes's is a double-consciousness engagement with the sonnet tradition.

Well and truly married to the tradition though Hayes's book is, he also wants to show it a few new metrical tricks, to be as topical as he wants to be (Trump pops up, of course, as do Maxine Waters, Dylann Roof, and other names in the news), and even to be as geeky as he wants to be (Dr. Who is often invoked). It manages to be in the library and in the street at virtually the same time, with occasional visits to whatever basement or bedroom was Hayes's geek lair.

I vaguely intended to get around to Lighthead when it won the National Book Award, but never did--I think I definitely will now.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Alex Dimitrov, _Begging for It_

The book's cover bears a photograph from David Wojnarowicz's "Rimbaud in New York"--someone at a table in a diner, next to the desserts display case, wearing a t-shirt, a sleeveless denim shirt, and a Rimbaud mask. It's a good choice, alluding simultaneously to the po├Ęte maudit tradition--risky behavior, contempt for conventional acclaim, linguistic fireworks--and to an awareness that the role is well-established, a trope of its own, a mask one can put on.

Dimitrov can bring the risky behavior ("His jaw clenches because your blood mixes sweetly / with the flower under his tongue"), he can bring the contempt for conventional acclaim ("Would you sleep with the poet who wrote this poem? / Would you buy his book? Click here"), and again and again he brings the linguistic fireworks.

Self-Portrait Without the Self

On the edges of the body is where I stood,
trying to feel my way to the center.

For years, it was all I wanted.
Clawing at the small cells,

kicking in the bones to make room
for something more permanent.

And this morning, tired of my lips,
the way my hair will sometimes tilt

to one side, a lover of extremes,
every part of me, slanted

as if towards another body--
I no longer want the center:

this heart, or what's in it.
I want what isn't mine

and what will not last.
And yes, your heart will not last.

The wonderful thing is that he also brings a self-consciousness about his own enterprise, a knowingness that though his is a road less taken, quite a few even so have taken it.  It's a self-consciousness one detects in the names cited (Sontag, Barthes, Judith Butler) and a certain in-jokiness ("This Is Not a Personal Poem"). The self-consciousness was far from a problem, I should emphasize, for me--it was more of a saving grace than anything. I don't think I would have trusted the poems without it. It's the posing poets who don't even know they are posing that you want to steer clear of.