If V.S. Naipaul’s recent comments about the “feminine tosh” of his erstwhile publisher Diana Athill only confirm (yet again) the depth of his misogyny and general monstrousness, the nasty treatment of the female protagonist in his 1975 novel Guerrillas doesn’t do much to complicate the picture. But the novel nevertheless reminds us that the old man wasn’t always such a flatulent bore. The intensity and violence simmering throughout Guerrillas has a lot to do with Naipaul’s own ugliness, as Patrick French revealed in his biography, but it is just as much a reaction—common in those days—to the acrid failure of liberation movements in the developing world. Powerfully casting a psychosexual drama against the background of an encroaching political upheaval, Guerrillas exhibits the sharpest distillation of Naipaul’s unequaled stylistic restraint, to terrifying and exhausting effect. The opening pages, with their description of a Caribbean landscape covered in bauxite dust, might be the most transfixing beginning to any novel I’ve encountered.
Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’s masterful narrative history of Riot Grrrl, is a rare marriage of writer and subject. Like all vanguards, Riot Grrrl was finally a literary phenomenon; one patterned around the production and dissemination of DIY music magazines. And the book, lucid and intelligent throughout, is particularly strong on the tension between this widespread, decentralized, self-publishing initiative and that same network’s portrayal in the mass media. Portraying these conflicts as part of a larger struggle for self representation, Marcus earns her analysis of the oft-overused “spectacle” with an exact accounting of the bisecting media coverage that alternately sustains and impedes the movement. What’s consistently inspiring is how conscious a construction the whole thing was. For much of its early history, Riot Grrrl is nothing other than someone, usually Kathleen Hanna, challenging someone else to print a zine or play a show. As this challenge is answered, again and again, by young women across the country, we are reminded that the quest for authenticity has a sincerity all its own.
Luc Boltanski’s On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation, published in French in 2009, has just come out in translation from Polity, and I’m really learning from it. In the 1980s, Boltanski was dissatisfied with the appeals to false consciousness and ideology that accompany critiques of domination, as in the critical sociology practiced by his associate Pierre Bourdieu. He helped develop a French “sociology of critique,” which asks how people understand their own critical and resistant stances in ordinary life. In this new book, Boltanski points out that his “sociology of critique” had its own terrible problem—it lacks the standpoint of entire re-imagination or total critique that lent critical sociology such power to blow people’s minds and inspire social possibilities beyond the obvious or “realistic.” In On Critique, Boltanski attempts a new methodology that respects people’s minds and practical competences while still emboldening them to, in Boltanski’s slogan, “render ‘reality’ unacceptable.”
Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette is a creepy exciting little French book, newly republished by NYRB Classics, about a beautiful young woman who’s trained herself to be a killing machine. Aimée insinuates herself into groups of rich people then finds ways to pit them against each other, take their money, and destroy them; the book’s final lines make it clear that she’s meant to symbolize the coming workers’ uprising. I wonder whether Quentin Tarantino has read it; in the movie I imagine blood-spattered Aimée being played by either Angelina Jolie or Mélanie Laurent.
When the Wisconsin Republican Party subpoenaed William Cronon’s emails in March, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t amount to much. Cronon, a professor at the University of Madison who had just been named president elect of the American Historical Society, is both academically powerful and, in his essays and television appearances, eminently responsible — as one website headlined the story, “Wisconsin Republicans attack their most moderate critic.” The surprise was not what the Republicans found (nothing) but what the attack revealed about Cronon’s real influence. Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, said Cronon’s first book, Changes on the Land, about the environmental history of early New England, exerted a greater influence on his own dissertation than anything else. Paul Krugman said Cronon’s second book, Nature’s Metropolis, made a substantial difference in his own work on economic geography (the research for which he won the Nobel Prize). Changes in the Land is remarkable, if somewhat specialized, but I’m finally reading Nature’s Metropolis and it must be one of the greatest works of economic history ever produced. Cast as a history of Chicago in the mid-19th century with an environmental focus, it recounts the birth of the commodity form from the spirit of the railroad. The chapter on how the railroad and the invention of the grain elevator culminated in the first ever futures market at the Chicago Board of Trade may be the best prelude to Marx’s Capital you can find.
Sequels rarely get any respect; and while it’s true that the four novels that follow Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley aren’t exactly as perfect as that first book—it’d probably be difficult for almost any novel to compete with its masterly blend of suspense and anguish—I still found them exceedingly satisfying when reading them in quick succession over the past year. Published between 1955 and 1991, the series that opens with the by now familiar story of the sissyish striver turned psycho killer Tom Ripley and his dangerous infatuation with the waspy Dickie Greenleaf turns in the ensuing books to his later life as a wealthy man of leisure, dabbling on the DL in forgery, identity theft, and homicide. What the sequels lack in depictions of erotic-cum-murderous longing that made the first novel so memorable (by the second novel in the series, Ripley Under Ground, Tom is quite peacefully married to a French heiress), they make up for in gripping plots, deliciously pulpy characters, and that ability unique to the sequel, for which we really should be more thankful: to keep telling us what happened next.
Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments is intelligent, life-saving company. I could not recommend it more highly. While growing up in a Bronx tenement, Gornick struggles to navigate the potential models for love and work, embodied by her sharp, proud mother and female neighbors.
In search of more novels with female friendship at their center, I read Lorrie’s Moore’s skittish and lyrical Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? It was refreshing to see Moore describe how the main characters’ shared girlish recklessness fosters intimacy, not competition.
I had never heard of Thomas Bernhard until my mother advised me not to read him. This was a few years ago: her book club was doing Old Masters and the consensus was unfavorable. Yet once I’d heard of him, I couldn’t stop hearing about him. Having recently finished Woodcutters, I can see why. The novel takes place largely within the confines of an artistic dinner—italics Bernhard’s—held by aging bohemians in 1980s Vienna. When not accidentally nodding off, the Bernhard-like protagonist, a sclerotic writer, passes judgment on his hosts and their guests. In this 181-page harangue of an inner monologue, the narrator’s bitterness becomes so routinized, the language so fixed in its hatred, that the shift in register at the end comes as a shock. I expected to find Woodcutters funny; I did not expect to be so moved. It’s a bit as if the Underground Man, in all his self-loathing paralysis, had Philip Roth’s neurotic humor.
Phyllis Rose describes one of her reasons for writing Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages as a “taste for higher gossip.” The literary stripes of the subjects of Rose’s Parallel Lives and Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of a Marriage make for much of the books’ appeal (among the marriages Rose examines is George Eliot’s to George Henry Lewes; Nicolson writes about his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson), but the gossipy pleasures of these biographies are “higher” as much for the analytical cast of their writers as for the fanciness of their subjects. For Rose, marriage is a essentially a narrative project, a fiction, a successful marriage a rare congruence of mythologies. Nicolson, in thrall to his parents’ unconventional union, is not so grim. Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson were married for forty-nine years, happily for most of those. The answer to a good marriage, it seems, is to be attracted to the opposite sex from the one you’re married to.
I started Jean Strouse’s biography of Henry James’s younger sister, Alice, before I read Parallel Lives or Portrait, and wonderful as it is have yet to finish it. The promise of unlocking the secret of married life proved more compelling than understanding a single unmarried one. Poor, afflicted, self-deprecating Alice! She wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Not the wall, but a movement within it captured me, the midday sun overhead blanching my vision so that all I saw was the center of the wall cleaving, slowly forming a pout of lips. Something was parting through the lips and stepping its way out of the wall, a she.” Meet Ursula, Van Gogh’s morphine-addicted, cross-dressing lover and the heroine of Van Gogh’s Bad Café, the most seductive book I’ve read in a long time. Ursula accidentally stumbles into the 20th century through a hole in the wall of the Bad Café, where Van Gogh can be found most dawns, drunkenly supplicating the heavens. Finding herself in the not-yet-gentrified Lower East Side, Ursula comes to terms with the 1990s by watching kung fu movies, shaving her head, tattooing her inner thighs, swearing at bartenders, and giving up all forms of sexual penetration because she “could no longer bear such imperialism from a man . . . now that she understood sex in its historical context.” All the while, Ursula pines for her Vincent, recalling his life and their obsessive love in grand, sensuous language that is tragicomically anachronistic—“Ain’t you too old for that Pussy Pie, man?” one of Ursula’s new friends asks another. The book is worth reading just for Frederic Tuten’s descriptions of sunlight.