As there will probably never be another in-depth analysis printed on John Carpenter's They Live, this one will have to serve for the ages: thank goodness it's by a writer like Lethem, whose skills in the super-serious-look-at-trash-culture field of writing matches (and often exceeds) his contemporaries, of which there are, if you ask Philip Roth, way too many, and if you ask me, absolutely the right amount. Being the first in Soft Skull's Deep Focus series, the book is also exciting in terms of advertisement, because if this is what they plan to publish, I think I'll just have to buy the whole set. (The next volumes are on The Sting and Death Wish. Also a Bad News Bears sequel? For some reason the Lethal Weapon one has been delayed.)
The trap that Lethem has to watch out for is the same one that threatened, and may have now overtaken the 33 1/3 scribes: this has to be better than one of those great wikipedia articles you read once and then only remember the trivia from, and the writer has to be more than one of those autodidactic memory savants who handle a lot of what's currently considered the in-vogue criticism. (And if you're trying to be really great at it, it has to avoid the personal information dump ground that ruins the rest.) They Live succeeds on both fronts, in part because Lethem restricts the personal stuff to how-it-relates-to-watching-the-film, and in part because he's able to split his focus without lessening the intensity of it. There's a lot of thought given to They Live's famous fight scene, a decent chunk of time studying what our new, obsessively audience-controlled method of film-watching does to a viewer's takeaway experience, and a honest (and necessarily critical) probing into They Live's political wormholes. It's a hard book not to recommend, and one of the most pleasurable print movie critiques I've read since Stephen Mulhall's On Film. So buy it, I guess. Or don't. Whatever you decide, I think we should spoon more often, you and me.
Although it's not a totally fair or direct comparison, you could call On Literature the academic version of that cult-y essay by Jonathan Franzen on why reading smart books doesn't make you smarter and not be too far off the beam, or at least you won't be far enough off that the judges skip scoring you and start advising you to try a different sport entirely. The comparison does falls apart when you get down to what the different authors were trying to do--as well as the obvious question of whether they succeeded at it or not--but you'd be hard pressed naming one as being noticeably "better" than the other. Miller's descriptions of the two kinds of reading, (critical and slow, immersive and pleasurable) made this one worth the time, at least. The back cover says "passionate", I don't disagree in the slightest.
This is one of those gifts of kindness from a family member who doesn't know comics, the sort of thing this reviewer gets in place of the bath soaps and scented candles he often gives to others. I just flat out love books as gifts, even when they turn out to be Reallionaire or a Purpose Driven Life. It's like being handed a stranger's vacation, but not in a gross way. Now, this Crumb thing isn't really a book, per se--like Naomi Klein's Fences and Windows, it's a collection of what would now just be printed on the individual blogs of the more cocksure contributors, or it might pop up amongst the essays that a Tim Hodler or a Noah Berlatsky commission for more general purpose websites. The subject is supposed to be Robert Crumb, and about half the entries are able to stick to that, but the rest are, as these things always are, more about the contributors relationship to the man. And while a lot of the book could (and should) be dismissed for falling apart into self-delusional rationalizations why Crumb has books about him and others are still busting their ass to make rent in roach-encrusted San Fran garrets, there's some metal that comes shining through. (Like Trina Robbins honing her attack on Crumb's attitudes towards women down to its finest, sharpest point in a way that won't allow the reader the standard hours-of-cyclical-argumentation way out that longer versions of her criticism seem to always develop into, and then, there's a genius essay from an underground contemporary describing a late-in-the-movement party where Crumb was the only attendee with a lawyer, and decades later, he was the only one at that party that ever got paid.)
Another shining moment has to be the Reverend Ivan Stang's anecdote describing Crumb's initial reaction to walking into one of his first roomfuls of fans.
"All these nerdy little guys with glasses!! Are these people the ones who've been buying my stuff all these years??" He was actually surprised. I said, "well, yeah, of course! Haven't you ever been to a comic book convention?" "No," he replied. I was floored. This was in goddamn 1984, for god's sake!! He was appalled to discover the nerdy quality of his fans. "It's really depressing. They're such geeks!"
I did kind of a double take. "Look who's talking, Crumb! You're a nerdy looking guy with glasses!"
File this one alongside The Pale King in books that nearly broke me, not due to content but to the test of my endurance: this is a book that, until what seemed like an ancilliary character forces a soap-operatic conclusion (it is not a wholly unsatisfying soap-operatic conclusion), prizes your suffering above all else. Page after grueling page, a great craftsman tries to escape the life he's created for himself and the art the world still demands from him, chased the whole time by the insidious conversations of blameless curiosity dwellers, seeking only explanation down where mortality ends. Even when the selfish and greedy butt through the door, demanding first attention and then argument, Greene's pace never accelerates. It's just a march on empty, and a rebuke to those who prize anything but the choice to go on breathing. This one hurts.
Marilynne Robinson, 1980
It's not as perfect as Gilead, but that comes as little surprise; after all, Housekeeping is a 1st novel. After cruising through a few of these bad boys about six months ago, Housekeeping lines up and takes it's lumps like all the rest: it's more unwieldy then the author's later work, the ambitiousness and flaws are far more pronounced...it's your classic first book. And yet it's also a lost book--it came out in 1980, and Robinson didn't put anything out in fiction until 25 years later, when she unleashed the male version of Housekeeping, otherwise known as, there's that word again, Gilead.
The only real complaint I had was that there was a predominant gypsy feel to the book, and seriously, I run a zero tolerance program when it comes to gypsies. Dr. Doom's a gypsy, you know? Gypsies are dangerous.
-Tucker Stone, 2011