Monday, June 17, 2002 :::
When I have spare time, I read books. Only then do I write half-remember lies about the books I read
As threatened, the book review section. Herewith begins a relentlessly continuing account of all the books I've finished so far in 2002, in chronological order. Someone get me a sandwich.
AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN by Dwight MacDonald. Fascinated by his recent Michael Wreszin-edited letters collection, I decided to delve into the work itself. No regrets. Cultural criticism and belles lettres from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, containing a still-classic disembowelment of the then-popular James Gould Cozzens (who now stands as a monument to the dust and ashes that all popular literary reputations turn to—read this, David Foster Wallace, and despair) and similar salty takes on Mortimer Adler’s Synopticon, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and How-to books, among others.
The most interesting for Surrender’s purposes---and a reason I wish I weren’t writing this over six months after finishing the book, because I’m just sure I had many very apposite and fascinating thoughts about it right after I finished it on New Year’s Day—is the long lead essay “Masscult & Midcult” in which MacDonald attacks mass popular culture that pretends to the values of High Culture but is in fact a meretricious imitation. “Masscult” is the stuff that’s more obviously infra dig, like Michener and Rockwell. Midcult can fool people; a couple of examples he stresses are Hemingway’s OLD MAN AND THE SEA and Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN. (One wonders what he’d have made of EIGHTBALL #22) (By the way, these awful plagues weren’t merely 20th century problems; he also diagnoses Walter Scott and Lord Byron as early purveyors of Masscult crap.)
Whether this sort of thing is a “problem” to be lamented – MacDonald notes that fine cultural products are more widely available than ever before but laments that we’re doing much better on the consumption end than the production. Cornucopians of an individualist bent are perfectly capable of not getting MAD about the fact that there’s a lot of shit out there we don’t care for as long as the good stuff’s there too. But it is perhaps the occupational hazard of the professional “cultural critic” that “oh well, people will like what they like” is hard to sell to many editors of finer publications, or at least you need to plump up the wordage to make your monthly nut.
A quote relevant to indie rock: “It was an elite community, a rather snobbish one, but anyone could join who cared enough about such odd things. Its significance was that it simply refused to compete in the established cultural marketplaces. It made a desperate effort to fence off some area within which the serious artist could still function, to erect again the barriers between the cognoscenti and the ignoscenti that had been breached by the rise of Masscult. The attempt was against the whole movement of history; and our cultural sociologists, had they been anachronistically consulted by Yeats or Stravinsky, could have proved to them with irrefutable tables and research studies that it could not possibly come to anything. For it was, sociologically speaking, absurd. Nevertheless, the attempt did in fact succeed, perhaps because artists, writers and musicians are not very good at statistics—and to it we owe most of the major creations of the last seventy years.”
He mistrusts “publics” and has faith in the individual genius of random artists. This is all to the good. However, he comes close, toward the end of the book, in giving away a valuable part of the professional game by openly discussing the fact that it is never to your benefit to talk to a reporter. Shh, ignore the cultural critic in the corner. He’s drunk.
JAR OF FOOLS by Jason Lutes. You just can’t help thinking how much hard, physical labor goes into drawing 142 comic book pages. Lutes would win an A for effort anyhow, but his execution is also great—a fine understated style that neither reminds you of anyone else nor distracts you with bravura attempts at “expanding the form” and a touching tale of magicians, con men, and lost love—everything that makes life suck, in one comical book.
WORDS FROM THE MYTHS by Isaac Asimov. Isaac wrote a whole, whole great big hunka burning books. This was one of the more minor ones, but full of factoids for bar chat and Jeopardy answers. He retells Greek myths, gives word derivations for English terms (many highly literary and practically obsolete) and remains quietly fascinating with even the seemingly dullest material. I only wish I still remembered half of this. (Get used to this lament from an old, old man whose brain don’t work so good like it used to.) Cute idea I’m too much of a dullard to pull off: fill this review with as many Greek myth derived words as possible. Anthony Burgess could probably write a whole novel based on this premise. Too bad he’s not around anymore.
STRANGE TRAVELERS by Gene Wolfe. Probably the greatest novelist alive (I’d like to know of competitors, really—look me up, I’m in the book) isn’t always a genius in the short story form but often enough. “The Man in the Pepper Mill” is a classic troubled child looking for love for his single mom story that if the NEW YORKER rejected it they were fools; “The Ziggurat” should be on the reading list of every Men’s Rights club in the country; and “Bed and Breakfast,” about the bed and breakfast closest to the main drag on the road to Hell, is sweeter and sadder than you’d ever think a story with that topic should be. Wolfe as always has weird ideas that he doesn’t feel too inclined to beat you over the head with explanations for; he handles the phantasmagorical and inexplicable with a prose and tone so measured that you find yourself literally not believing (or most sadly not understanding) what you are reading. I really want to be more evangelical about him; unfortunately, his most amazing and rewarding work are the serial novels, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN (4 vols.), THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN (4 vols.) and THE BOOK OF THE SHORT SUN (3 vols, which I read last year soon after A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME by Anthony Powell and is the only novel sequence that could ever start making me think it, and not DANCE, was the most stunning thing I’d ever read). For users of the 405 freeway in LA, pay special attention to the stories that bookend the volume, each presenting different perspectives on a curious series of events occurring in a world were many people spend their entire lives stuck in a traffic jam. This is science fiction, not just absurdist fantasy.
::: posted by Brian at 10:14 PM