David Denby has carved out a decent place for himself in recent years as the staunch defender of blockbusters of above average quality, a place he ended up in part because he seems mostly to prefer writing about movies that are seen by millions of people, as long as they aren't based on comic books. This, after all, is the guy who got actual death threats for pointing out that the Dark Knight marketing team should hold off on promoting their Keysi fight choreography until they hired a cinematographer who could shoot it in a comprehensible fashion, ever since, superhero movies will find him loaded for bear. He's also somewhat well known amongst internet types for what is reportedly one of the worst books ever written on contemporary culture, "Snark", a book about how you shouldn't make fun of things, ever, unless you're David Denby, who does it the right way, because he's...older than you? It's not an argument that makes a lot of sense.
That's who he is--and yes, some of that old marm-ishness does come through in this 2012 collection of his movie reviews. He never whips out a full on tsk-tsk, but like many old guard critics who remember what it was like before Ain't It Cool came along, Denby has a tendency to play his age a little too expressively, consistently hinting at a time when things were a little bit simpler and entertainment was a little bit smarter. Even when you agree with him on the dwindling of the American movie star or the merchandised megalomania of corporate transmedia intellectual property farms, it feels a little too obvious, a little too stale. "Corporations suck" is something you write in sharpie on a skateboard, it's a little too short to be a thesis past those years. Better to focus on what you like, David. You don't seem to have an actual case against the things you don't.
The Dinner By Herman Koch, 2012
A creepy book about a family with a dark secret that is slowly revealed over the course of one flashback-full evening, each neatly parseled out amidst that evening's titular meal, The Dinner reads like it was composed to perform an industrial function. It's got some genuinely shocking twists, but even those shocks feel like they've been inserted to fit a structural need, as if Koch could tell that the audience was starting to slip away. (To be honest, I was.) It's a problem possibly attributable to Koch's choice of shock--focusing on a lead character who is gradually revealed to have a severe form of mental instability--as the book feels like you're being rambled at by a dopey psychotic even before it's explained that yes, you actually are being rambled at by a dopey psychotic on an erection-imposed meds vacation. The brief moments of black humor that humanize the characters never lasts that long, and the actual innocents on display are portrayed as being so weak and ineffectual that it's impossible to imagine a circumstance where the regular world's day-to-day difficulties wasn't going to destroy them anyway. In the end, it's a book that never really says anything (beyond generalities like "do brutes deserve love, aren't mothers are committed, which one of us is REALLY crazy"), choosing instead to lay all of its bets on the form it chooses to ramble them in. It passes the time, sure, but it's not like time needs the help.
The Fun Stuff James Wood, 2012
A good rule of thumb is that a critic who claims that it's "easy" to write negative reviews is a critic who can't write negatively very well (and about half the time, can't write positively either), and despite his high profile as the New Yorker book critic many are eager to please, James Wood has sort of become one of those guys: he can write about the good stuff, but when he's steamed up, back away. (This wasn't always true, but in recent years, it does seem to have become the case.) Properly then, you'll find mostly positive pieces in this collection of book reviews and the like. That's partly by design--"The Fun Stuff" of the title refers to Wood's reverence for the Who's Keith Moon, a man well known for his love of hedonistic pleasures--and partly by desire. When Wood is enthused about someone, be it Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis or "solving" Ian McEwan--he's at his absolute best, unleashing paragraphs of prose that are both exuberant and toiled over. It's like seeing a proud mechanic roll out his latest contraption, built from the sturdiest of equipment and polished to a shine. Wood's ability to quote a book and capture a moment's essence is intimidating, and not just to writers who marvel at his ability to parse out meaning, but to a reader, who fears that their own exercise just isn't good enough. If there's any flaw to Wood's method, it's probably that he never quite brings you along in a way that convinces you that there was a way you could have discovered it on your own, and while that may be true, the job of the explanatory critic--which is what Wood prefers to be--is to trick you into thinking that you're smart enough without their help, and that they're merely saving you time.
Bay of Souls By Robert Stone, 2003
If there's one particular plot that has a tendency to write itself whether anyone wants to read it again or not, it's the one where a man cheats on his wife with an unbelievably sexy woman who transitions from an almost feral cool to 100% freakshow crazypants right around the time he decides to fully bail on his marriage. One doesn't even have to seek these sorts of books out, they just bubble up everywhere, like a sunburn on a redhead. You wade through them, tolerating the portions where he impotently struggles with whether or not he should pretend to feel guilty, waiting for the part where he makes some terrible decision to sneak a weekend away with his perfect little time bomb. What will the confrontation be like? How will his young son react to the news of his father's choices? In the hands of a great author, this sort of tedium can be skillfully redeemed by the characters, the setting, even the prose itself. It's heavy lifting, but it can be done, and Robert Stone is a heavy lifter.
This one seems to have gotten away from him. There's moments--blips, really--where the terminology of international espionage miscelleny and alcoholic journalism expand the pages outward into a better story, as if they were an old fashioned fireplace bellows of seriousness. Snuck in by characters that ring of cliche--a cocky reporter or a death-drenched cartel kingpin--you'll sense a tale of more depth, but it leaves as abruptly as their behavior was introduced. The finest portion of the book, where Charles Dicken's Madame Defarge is recast as a voodoo priestess who is also, somehow, the long arm of druglords, isn't even graced with an ending, it's just abandoned. You're stuck riding around in the back pocket of another cranky professor-type with a 40-something hard-on lost in a world his academia didn't prepare him for. If you aren't tired of those yet, fine. But if you aren't tired of those yet, you probably don't read that much in the first place.
The Corrections By Jonathan Franzen, 2001
Reading this again having finished Freedom is an experience worth recommendation, and yet it was the hubbub that arose over the publication of this piece of writing that saw this reader pulling Franzen's 2001 game-changer off the shelf. I love The Corrections, I do. Maybe it's because I've never read anything else that comes so close to accurately capturing the disintegration effect dementia has on an old man, or maybe it's the no-escape, no-quarter way it forces one to experience how neurotic and demanding love can twist a family apart. I love this book, no matter how mechanical that part about the guy quitting his job to keep his daughter's name from being dragged thru the mud feels all these years later. Blue cheeks, you son of a bitch!
Beloved By Toni Morrison, 1987
Unchanged by time or reverence. Different moments leap out and take root--"your love is too thick" "thin love ain't no love at all" lacerate as much now as the passage describing the sawblade, the birth--but the general sense of significance that blisters the page remains the same. By comparison to 12 Years A Slave, a recent film that's representation of slavery quite nearly matches Beloved in terms of violence, Morrison's work splashes out its vision on a larger canvas. It's not just the lashing, it's also the way it lasts, the way the horror lives forever, how it's almost as bad to sit and witness the way a body makes itself survive the twenty years that follow something it shouldn't have had to experience once. A wound can only physically heal, and that is not enough.