By Martin Amis, 2010
Martin Amis gets more shit than he probably deserves, but I wouldn't attempt to mount a defense for the man's work--it would be impossible, as the only thing I remember about Night Train and Yellow Dog (the only books I've read of his besides this one) is that I didn't like them. This one came highly recommended though, by somebody who often strikes me as a singularly perfect human being made flesh by the Hebrew God of old, and after diving into it, I have to say: this is excellent.
Franzen's new book sure is getting a lot of high praise, right? That's got to be in part because its For Adults with capital letters, that it concerns itself less with meeting the nostalgia and kitsch audiences on their level--I could, of course, be totally wrong, as I'm only guessing at it, having not cracked it myself. And yet, I have to wonder if it's going to go so far as something like what Amis does here, something that's so immediately concerned with the shaping of what makes memory into something falsely reliable (if you're looking for truth) and still so important (if you want to know why we do the things we do, the way we wished we'd live then, as the memory of it determines how we do it now). Because this is a book about sex, fucking, women, men, boys, hate, and even more so, again, sex. It's about fucking each other for too long, and then fucking somebody else on the side, it's about the way sex has become ad copy, but when it actually occurs--with the sweat, and the bodies, and the eye contact, and the furtive, sneaking lies that lust creates through lack of love--it thoroughly annihilates the way we talk about it.
This isn't making a lot of sense to me, I'm not even sure how to say what I'm trying to say--but that's The Pregnant Widow itself, a book that probably deserves every single negative thing one might level about its structure and style. It's not going to kick its way into the stacks of "confusing" books, nobody should go that far, but it's still brilliantly manipulating and maddeningly obnoxious at times. You find yourself forced to count occasional streams of dialog into couplets to determine who is saying what, re-reading paragraphs of convoluted monologues just to figure out which parts are the lies, and at the end--when the entirety of its preceding structure of obsessively detailed chronology is rejected so that decades of time can be presented in greatest hits of fucking--you can't help but question whether the book should've been 500 pages longer, or 300 pages shorter.
Of course, that's probably the joke. Sex wants perfect, but it also wants unique. And when you hit the engine room, all the planning ends up in the floor with the mess our bodies leave behind.
Praised as a testament to human excellence, derided as a manifesto of middle class macho posturing, Crawford's semi-auto-biographical study in the glories of knowing what you own struck me as a bit of both and ultimately neither. This is a book about the way one spends one time and what one spends it on: if it makes you want to learn about the engines and mechanical nature of the objects that rest amongst even the most luddite of lives, it's only achieved the smallest of its goals. See, what it's about is more like this, wrapped up in an inoffensive play on self-help jargon: what are you doing with your time, and why?
Crawford's story is pretty simple to blurb: he's a college educated ex-corporate think tanker who rejected the "life of the mind" and turned his lifelong hobby (repairing motorcycles) into a career. His book was spurred the desire to condemn a mythological glorification of blue collar efforts (and in doing so, lambast the popularity of faked "authenticity") while acknowledging the satisfactions of those efforts. Opening by pointing out that the vastly popular myth of "our digital employed future" has yet to produce the widespread financial or intellectual rewards its ever-distancing horizon continually promises, he then punchily dismisses the wholesale rejection of outsourcing fears with the simple truth that overseas wage-slaves can't build your deck any more than they can plumb your toilet.
While Shop Class doesn't allow enough of an alternate perspective for it to be the philosophical argument that the book is most popularly marketed as, it would be dishonest to pretend that its goals aren't more in line with the library of personal manifestos. It's not a book designed to create mechanics, just a book about one man who took that path. The questions he came up with on the way--why we care so much about college educations when employers view it primarily as a box to check, why intellectual work is valued so poorly financial while the men and women who fix our things are valued so poorly as intellectuals--are designed to work within the reader, not as a mob's battle cry. Is it macho, and does the posture irritate at times? Of course it does. But to expect that it would be otherwise is to layer an obligation that has more to say about the reader than it does, as it were, the work.
Here's the problem with this collection: the music articles are, for the most part, well written and informative. When Hajdu goes vicious--mostly when he goes after the lazy, the self-promotional, or the trend-followers--he's usually pretty funny, even when he's painting himself into the corner of the know-it-all-white-rich-guy playing at Authentic Real Man Upbringings. His stuff on blogging and Myspace is all ridiculous as all of that stuff always sounds, but that's more a symptom of the inherent difficulty that everybody has when they're trying to issue blanket criticisms (or praise, although Hadju doesn't have much of that) for something as amorphous and schizophrenic as blogs. There's good writing here, even if he's clearly overly used to a writing format that seems stuck in college (opening anecdote, brief rundown of thesis, followed by a biographical portion that almost always starts with "John Smith was born in 1963, in Cheseapeake, Wyoming...").
But the comics stuff ruins the whole thing. I'm not Dan Nadel, Jeet Heer, Gary Groth, Donald Phelps; I don't have the historical background to take apart everything Hajdu writes here, and yet, even with the tiny bit of comics history I've got running through my brain (most of which comes from reading guys like Nadel, McCulloch and Spurgeon), I can tell you that this statement "it has become commonplace for comics artists to generate complete stories, leaving empty word balloons in the panels; only when the art is finished does the 'writer' come in, filling in the blanks with dialogue to accommodate the imagery" is complete bullshit, I can tell you that Will Eisner's time spent on PS Magazine wasn't "wasted", and if I know that shit, then David Hajdu should really, really know that shit. I'm a guy interested primarily in documenting my own interests on a temporal basis for my own personal entertainment both now and at a later date, someone who knows just enough about comics to know that I know absolutely fucking dick about comic books, and guys like Hajdu--someone who doesn't make comics, and has no apparent ambition to make comics--should be somebody that people like me can look up to, because he seems to be actively working towards dealing with this stuff outside of the normal, jerk-each-other-off channels. But his reasoning in his comics pieces, whether they're about Persopelis, the Spirit, Joe Sacco, or Ghost World is completely crap, his research is unreliable in a way that makes my head hurt, and the fact that he gets away with it--and despite the various places where people go after this dude for reasons just like these, he gets away with it all the time--is fucking disgusting. I'm a huge, huge fan of reading people I disagree with about comics, as long as they aren't sycophantic promote-the-industry-and-my-friends-in-the-face-of-all-reason apologists, but Hajdu isn't one of those people. Instead, he's a guy that simply doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about, and yet he has a forum where far more people are going to engage with him--and believe his skillfully written essays--than just about any of the people that you might name if you were to write up your favorite comics critics.
Barbarians At The Gate may or may not be one of the most influential business books of all time, but it's certainly an influence on the last twenty years of business books. While lacking in the charismatic corporate sociopath characters that populate the far more entertaining books of Steve Coll or Michael Lewis, it follows their format exactly, leading one to wonder who exactly pioneered this style of writing. Whoever did deserves a prize, because the style alone--a to-the-minute dead run through closed door billion dollar negotiations--is enough to propel interest all the way to the final chapter, which is always the one where the writer (or in this case, writers) throws out the laundry list of Where These People Are Now. Age hasn't served this book well, and you're probably better off with Coll's work if your tolerance for these kinds of books is limited, but this is still a far, far better way to spend one's time than the horrible movie they made out of it.
It takes a good quarter of the book to get used to Hazzard's faux-declarative style, but when it clicks into place, the story opens up into something that's quite pretty. The story of an Englishwoman who accepts assignment in Naples in a considered effort to escape one-sided emotionally incestuous feelings for her brother, Bay of Noon never seems concerned that the reader won't stay on board through the cold, unbending ending. And considering the brevity of the book, its rapid pacing and relatively compelling supporting cast of emotion-addicted loons, Hazzard probably isn't far off base. Still, this ended up being one of those stories that's more about what-happened-at-the-end and who-fucked-who, and she doesn't seem that interested in dealing out those pleasures in anything more than perfunctory fashion.
I can count, on one hand, the number of science fiction books I've actually read. It's a pure kind of disinterest, one that isn't tied into any specific ill will or critical sarcasm--I've just never had an interest in the shelves that contain these books. The copy of Dune that I read has been sitting, gathering actual dust (which I cleaned off with a paper towel), ever since I purchased it, which was right after I read what I remember being a pretty fascinating article in the Believer regarding the series' political philosophy. The book came up in conversation a few months ago with a comic book artist, and it was mentioned again to me by yet another comic book artist about two weeks ago, and it seemed like it might fit the bill as a plane trip book. And so, over the course of a couple of back and forth jaunts in a coach seat between my sleeping wife and an elderly man who smelled like decaying flowers, I finally read Dune.
It's pretty fucking good! It's interesting to see that Herbert has a flat zero of interest in describing the appearances of almost all of his characters--he barely gets into what the worms look like, obsessing mostly over mentioning their length and diameter--and you'll go the entire book without finding out what almost every character looks like, except for when they have a scar that he likes to mention. God bless him for doing more than the role-playing-game style structure that dominates so many comics of this particular genre--Dune never reads like a book created to display All This Great Shit I Made Up; instead, it's a story, a pretty engrossing one about the birth of tyrants and the cruelty of guerilla warfare, the building of a cult from the inside out. Dune starts like a million other revenge epics, but by the end of the book, when the downtrodden unleash a blitzkrieg of scorched earth violence, its gone somewhere much different. I hear these don't stay good for long, and that's fine: for now, I'm good right here, with the Guild receding in junkie withdrawal on the outskirts of Arrakis, praying that the Kwisatz Haderach doesn't decide to eviscerate them as well.
-Tucker Stone, 2010