Thursday, October 10, 2002 :::
!!!Books dammit all books!!!
Boy I’m I sorry I ever publicly vowed to write these little mini reviews of every book I’d finished this calendar year. But remember, it’s not self-indulgence; it is a cruel and difficult discipline. And the wheels grind slow, and not very fine either. I’m barely into February with this latest triad. I’m tempted to write about the new Bon Jovi record I got for free in the mail today instead.
MAKING US CRAZY: DSM: THE PSYCHIATRIC BIBLE AND THE CREATION OF MENTAL DISORDERS by Herb Kutchins and Stuart A. Kirk. A solid attack on the psychiatric profession’s diagnostic manual, tiptoes gingerly around the edges of a fully Szaszian skepticism about the nature of what psychiatrists like to call mental illness (actually, “mental disorders” is the nonce term—the science of psychiatry provides a treasure trove for those wanting to see “scientific” paradigm shifts.) Special focus on the purely political—never scientific—fights over DSM diagnoses on such dire sicknesses as homosexuality, post-traumatic stress disorder, and masochistic personality disorder. The most important Point to Remember: figuring out ways to maximize the range of behaviors for which insurance companies will reimburse them if they label them and get the label in the DSM appears to be the primary purpose of professional psychiatric diagnostic “science.” There have been a good smattering of magazine articles, not to mention stand-up comedy routines, mocking the DSM’s absurdity. This book does a fair, slightly angry, job saying most of what needs to be said on this tawdry, distasteful topic.
FACTS AND COMMENTS by Herbert Spencer. A grab bag of short journalism and essays by 19th century libertarian forefather. He’s great on war and militarism, a bit wet on corporate governance (he’s so sure that most corporate boards are stuffed with larceny that they need close gov’t scrutiny—yes, I thought of Enron as I read it) and celebrates all the good done for mankind on profiteers. But the most fun parts are his curious Victorian gentleman intellectual peccadilloes—speculating that spinning people around on tables is the most humane form of euthanasia, advocating more bass and less treble, explaining why deckle-edged books are a sign of encroaching barbarism, and an unexpected affection for Lamarckianism on the part of the coiner of the supposedly Darwinian phrase “survival of the fittest.” The sheer mental energy of 19th century polymaths like Spencer embarrass and discomfit me, I must confess. He’s a living rebuke to lazy bastards like me who haven’t written even one from-first-principles scientific or philosophical text, and who has developed no theories as to the connection between ground heat and concomitant weather patterns.
IN THE STONE HOUSE by Barry N. Malzberg. His first collection of short stories in a couple of decades. He finally did retire, sort of (his 1976 essay announcing his intention to quit writing is absolutely essential reading for anyone who thinks they might want to write either literary fiction, genre fiction, or most especially Malzberg’s combination of both—you can find it in his DOWN HERE IN THE DREAM QUARTER collection.) My first blurb was on the paperback of a Malzberg book; I was 14 when I wrote the review quoted from. I’d like to think this might make me the youngest blurber in American history. Holding forth such accomplishments, hugging it tight to the empty recesses of improvident pride, strikes me as a very Malzbergian thing to do.
I often find myself falling into his voice, as I am perhaps a bit here, a powerful and influential one, one I sunk into with great regularity and something approaching stunned amazement between the ages of 12-14. (Not that there’s any way in hell I’d let my kid that age read HEROVIT’S WORLD or GALAXIES or his many brilliant collections of short fiction.) I couldn’t believe anyone’s vision could be so lucently dark, that a voice could be so crazed, obsessed, yet controlled, that the science fiction literature I loved could mean and resonate in such wildly different ways. Litterateurs who have caught up with Ballard and Le Guin and Dick but not Malzberg have a lot of work to do, and they need to get to it.
Revisiting Malzberg now, both of us much older, wasn’t as deep a pleasure as I thought it might have been. What I used to treasure as unique character in his voice sometimes just strikes me as awkwardly poised prose; but still, the man writes utterly uncharacterizable and utterly unmistakable fiction and deserves—and I predict will get—honors and acclaim and attention far beyond what he’s known so far. It’s the only final irony appropriate to this bitterly heartfelt and sourly hilarious writer’s career, a writer always mindful of career and reputation.
I can hear slight echoes of some of his heroes, like Stanley Elkin and John Cheever, in his voice, his prose, his tone, his rhythms. He worries the same themes obsessively, like an infected scab that never quite tears off or loses its grotesque ability to fascinate—recasted lives of famous artists, the meaning of the Kennedys, the position of the Jews. (Cancer and astronauts, he seems to have finally picked off, more or less cleanly.) Don’t start here. Start with the paperbacks in the science fiction section of a well-stocked used book store. His condition, as Malzberg might have necessarily recognized, has not yet escaped the gravity well of the genre category he loved, honored, abused, hated. Through all the grousing and pain, he remained a quintessential '50s Company Man, loyal to the Science Fiction Corporation, est. 1926. Even when the clothes became inappropriately tattered, the coffee breaks too long, the clandestine calls to the competitors compulsive. In the end, no one else would take him. In a better world, he’s playing violin and Cyril Kornbluth, old, fat, and happy, listens soporifically in the audience.
::: posted by Brian at 11:36 PM