Off The Shelves
Dog Eat Dog,
by Jon Mooallem
Miramax Books, 2003
Yellow Dog has taken a stern beating. Tibor Fischer thoroughly crushed Martin Amis’s new novel in advance of its UK publication this summer, setting off a round of literary squabbling in the British press. Fischer, writing in the Telegraph, asserted that Golden Boy Amis, at middle age, is washed up, and watching it all unfold in print is, “like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.”
But Fischer also flagrantly mentioned that his own novel was due to hit shelves the same day as Yellow Dog—and boy was he relieved. After all, “No one wants a masterpiece knocking around when your own book is looking for attention.”
Fischer’s piece is not without its legitimate criticisms (and it was followed by similarly disparaging reviews in the States). Yet his exaggerated attack, taken with his conflict of interest, is ironic. Yellow Dog is in large part a treatise on male power and the violence its pursuit necessitates, on the Alpha Male and that unappeasable other—him with a zero safety pinned to his chest, fecklessly sprinting ahead. Thus it’s tough to tell whether Fischer was reviewing the book, or enacting it.
Amis’s first new novel in six years is a roaring hulk of a book, with its legion of protagonists and plot lines. Like his other London-set novels it is inventive, witty, and unrelentingly bleak. Xan Meo, respectable London “Renaissance Man” and husband, is bludgeoned by mysterious hit men. As he recovers from the head wound, he regresses into a brute. He’s crass, he’s depraved, and his American wife, Russia, doesn’t want him around their daughters. Joseph Andrews, the expatriate geriatric crime lord who may be behind the attack, is now plotting something a lot larger. Mal, his hired muscle, is developing a conscience.
Meanwhile, Clint Smoker, ace porn journalist, keeps London wanking. And the King of England (surname England) is a wreck—his wife is in a coma and his daughter has been surreptitiously videotaped in the bath. A strange species of extortion ensues. Bugger, a royal advisor, is working to uncover the perpetrator, and is smitten with the underage heiress. Fucktown, a porn industry enclave in Southern California, is doing what it does best. A plane with a corpse in its hull is going down; it’s the corpse’s fault. And, oh yeah, a comet the size of Los Angeles is screeching toward earth like “a terrible old man on a terrible old errand.”
It’s all good enough fun, though only two thirds into Yellow Dog does Amis really seem to have all of these various plates up in the air and spinning. And this sense of narrative proficiency—and, consequently, of substantiated reader-ly trust—wavers somewhat in the novel’s final third when Amis must go about resolving them all.
Given the somewhat raggedy plot structure, Amis may intend Yellow Dog’s unifying factor to be its musings on male violence. It may be, to its detriment, first and foremost a novel of ideas. So many characters are sunk in the desperate power politics of what it is to be male and—more prickly yet, and more revolting—what it is to be half of the male-female equation, where sex and violence are often conflated. (Sex is simply what everyone in Yellow Dog has in common—from the readers of Clint’s paper, all the way up to the Royal Palace, where even Bugger must “attend to the ordeal of his own arousal.”)
Pedophilia, porn, and semen are among Yellow Dog’s major fixations, often intersecting with palpable icky-ness. (“What would a baby look like, made of that stuff?" asks Clint, after spending himself in a prostitute’s hair.) Ultimately, the book speculates that the shrapnel from all this male aggression inevitably nicks the kids. Some of Amis’s most striking, most eerie passages depict Xan beginning to fear himself and what horrible sexual things he may or may not do to his young daughter. The book closes with a haunting flashback to Xan’s own violent childhood.
Even Tibor Fischer concedes that Amis’s prose is as hard-hitting and graceful as ever, a pleasure to read regardless of the book’s weaknesses. Yellow Dog sparks with Amis’s well-spun, remarkable perspicacity. On weather: “The weather was of the type that was still politely described as blustery. A ragged and bestial turbulence, in fact, a rodeo of wind—the earth trying to throw its riders.” On emergency landing: “One scorching ricochet, one hurt, wounded rearing-up with slats and panels flying off it, then touchdown, the resilient gathering of its rigidity, and on it powered beyond the cauldron of its wake.”
But yes, Mr. Fischer, we’re left with the sense that there is simply too much in this book, too many leitmotifs half-heartedly begging analysis. (Even Amis seems to lose interest in the teenage panhandler pretending to be homeless and hearing about it from his middle class mum.) In a novel where even a few of the central characters seem to be individuated solely by superficial attributes or situations or verbal tics—sketched in to emblematize one or another virtue like the Saints—it’s tough to sort out what’s meant to be veracious human drama and what’s there solely for the sake of profundity.
At first, the comet seems like one such case. This backdrop of impending, absolute destruction is a device Amis has used before. (In London Fields, perhaps his best novel, the role was played by strange weather.) But what’s peculiar about the comet is that no one in Yellow Dog seems to be all that bothered about it—a mention here, a mention eighty pages later. Folks toss it in casually when conversation lulls—“So when’s the comet due then?”
Even one of Amis’s characters, porn star Karla White, finally has to wonder: “Don’t you think we’re all being incredibly cool about the comet?” But Karla eventually answers her own question: “Nobody cares about the comet because it’s not our fault.”
Amis has said that on September 12, 2001 the “comic novel” he was writing became exponentially weightier—that every novelist in the world suddenly regarded his role as a professional maker-upper otiose and self-centered. Amis himself has published a good deal of searing political pieces since, and Yellow Dog wears its preoccupation with current events on its sleeve. (Xan Meo, when attacked, hits the pavement rigidly like “the statue of a fallen tyrant.”)
Yellow Dog may suggest that in the multi-faceted horror of our world, we can barely keep up with that for which we’re explicitly culpable: the hurt levied by the basest of our base instincts and the negligent hurt—that which still manages to seep out from behind our “developed set of rational contemporary attitudes,” as Russia puts it. Overburdened with our own muddle, we falter. Yellow Dog points out the problem well enough, but it also suffers from it.
Jon Mooallem is a writer based in Brooklyn.
World War II Flashbacks,
by Jana Prikryl
Akashic Books, 2003
Speak Now, Kaylie Jones’s fifth novel, is a kind of historical fiction by proxy. Playing with that genre’s rear-view mirror warning, that objects behind you “may be larger than they appear,” Jones offers two storylines—one up close, the other far off but ever-present. The core story will be familiar to anyone who has seen Sandra Bullock’s rehab tribulations in the movie 28 Days: the year is 1995, and a young woman named Clara Sverdlow, addicted to alcohol and drugs, with a no-good stalker ex-boyfriend named Niko, tries to make a go of it with her new husband Mark, a rising New York art star (also a former addict) and their infant daughter. Fair enough.
But Jones adds a back-story, and that back-story is the Holocaust. Clara’s father Viktor is a camp survivor (and now a linguistics professor in Connecticut). Her mother (one of Viktor’s American students) died during childbirth, and Clara has been raised with the help of Anya, another survivor whose life Viktor saved at Auschwitz. Clara’s current existence in New York City as a social worker is constantly interrupted with flashbacks to the 1970s, when she was a teenager whose alcoholic father was racked by memories of the war.
This juxtaposition between Clara’s addiction and Viktor’s past is the book’s real theme. At the end, after struggles with her stalker and her sobriety, Clara understands that all her private troubles had a very public, political cause: “She realized now that she’d never had a clear boundary drawn between what was acceptable and what was not. What was sane behavior and what was not. Now she knew. Now she knew and she could draw the line.” Our heroine has finally awoken from the nightmare of history and can put the booze and quaaludes behind her.
The first thing anyone mentions about Kaylie Jones is her pedigree: she is James Jones’s daughter, and even with five books to her name, his novels about the Second World War (including From Here to Eternity) continue to eclipse her byline. It seems natural that father-daughter relationships and a sort of doomed, WWII-tinged machismo should figure big in Jones fille’s fiction—and that she might have something new to say on these matters.
But in this latest book, Jones struggles with language, at times crashing into awkward metaphors as she bends to get inside her characters. When Clara meets Mark at the rehab center, their budding love affair sounds literally fishy: “During meals in the too-bright Stillwell cafeteria, her eyes and Mark’s would lock across the crowd of bustling heads and they would be drawn like two mackerels flopping toward each other from opposite sides of a fishing boat’s bloody deck.” It’s also possible to keep a running tally of “heart” references in the text: “Mark’s heart felt like it had received an electric shock,” “they made her heart soar,” “His heart is thundering,” “Mark’s heart constricted in his chest,” and so on. You begin to anticipate coronary events whenever the story turns introspective.
The rest of the time, the prose is efficient to a fault, breezing through contemporary events and memories as though the novel were its own plot summary—or, perhaps, its own screenplay. Scenes are set with an eye for film noir and camera focus, rather than for wordplay or idea-germination: “Blackstone chose a table by a large window. Rain dripped down the outside of the glass, obscuring the street. Blurry red and white lights glided past.” The moodiness of detail does create an oppressive atmosphere, as well as a certain Grisham-like tension, but there’s nothing urgently new about this genre of suspense.
Jones’s ability to structure the various timelines and flashbacks stands out as the book’s most solid achievement. Plenty of careful research went into these pages, and Jones’s emotional and moral commitment to her story is clear. Some of the details are also nicely crafted: Mark’s firefighting brother Lionel has cashed in on his life-saving profession by selling cookbooks and branding himself the “Firefighter Chef.” Still, even this bit of color feels imported from a more “contemporary” novel, something lighter and edgier and more satirical.
Competent without being challenging, Speak Now raises ethical questions that have been better handled by books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow. Even when Amis’s novel came out ten years ago to critical praise, a review in The Washington Post began with the line, “Martin Amis has the Aryan cheek to be sporting with the Holocaust.” But Jones’s touch is too heavy to sport with anything, and precisely because she fails to add new or transformative insights to the Holocaust discourse, she risks being accused of exploiting the event. Speak Now features a 30-something in the 1990s, who blames her drug habit on a ripple-effect that began with the persecution of Jews in the 1930s: no doubt there’s some way to make that premise convincing, but this novel hasn’t found it, and in its absence you wonder whether a less loaded topic might have lent equal traction to Clara’s story.
Jana Prikryl is a writer based in Manhattan.
A Legacy of Torture,
by Christian Parenti
Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
One of the most truly horrific wars of the past century was the often-overlooked genocidal campaign waged by the Guatemala state against the indigenous Mayan people of that country’s central highlands. Technically, the government was putting down a guerilla insurgency that lasted from the mid 1960s until the late 1990s, but in reality it was a war of cultural and physical annihilation against Guatemalan Indians as a group, regardless of the their connection or lack of connection to the rebels.
Much has been written on this topic but no book yet approaches the thoroughness and raw impact of Victoria Sanford’s new title Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. Based on Sanford’s fieldwork as a forensic anthropologist helping to excavate mass graves and interview the survivors of military massacres, the book tells a heartbreaking and sickening tale of unbridled human cruelty.
During the war there were 625 documented massacres, 440 villages erased from the map, and over 150,000 people killed. And by all credible accounts the vast majority of the violence, more than 90 percent, was perpetrated by the Guatemalan military, an institution that was during the worst years was backed by the US, and led by officers who had trained at the School of the Americans in Fort Benning, Georgia.
Most of the massacres occurred in the early eighties. The army’s logic was “drain the sea to catch the fish.” If a sizeable minority of Mayans had joined or supported the guerillas the solution was to eliminate the Indians. So the military simply laid waste to huge swaths of countryside in an almost medieval orgy of torture, looting and murder.
This history is recounted but so to are the lingering cultural and psychological wounds of the war. Sanford dissects six stages in what she calls the “phenomenology of terror.” These stages run from military massacres and torture, to civilian flight and survival in the jungle, to capture and re-education by the military and end with a permanently militarized culture corrupted by constant fear and sadness.
The most harrowing part of Sanford’s book is the way in which the Guatemalan army successfully turned Mayan villagers against one another. Torture usually involved mass rape, beatings, burning, and mutilation but the army also forced the Mayan farmers to beat, cut and otherwise hurt each other. A survivor recounted to Sanford how in his village one group of men was forced to jump up and down on another group that was made up of their friends and family. This logic of community division was institutionalized in the form of the Civil Patrols—military established militias in which Mayan men were lightly armed with carbines and forced to participate in massacres against their neighbors. The Patrollers also tortured, raped, and executed suspected guerilla sympathizers.
Tragically, some patrollers took to their tasks with alacrity and in emulation of their military oppressors embraced the raping, looting, and killing. According to Sanford, some of the richest peasants in the highlands today are those who stole their neighbors’ cattle during the war.
In laying bare the reality of the Guatemalan war, Sanford also takes to task some of the military’s more egregious apologists. In particular she blasts anthropologist David Stoll, who made a name for himself by arguing that the guerillas provoked the army and that the Civil Patrols were in fact antonymous Mayan organizations. Never mind that Stoll did much of his fieldwork under the watchful eye of the military, interviewing people from a military re-education camp; Sanford unpacks the more important factual inaccuracies in Stoll’s work. For example he dismisses the close links between the US and Guatemalan militaries during the sixties and seventies; Sanford documents them. Sanford also notes that the guerillas also committed war though on a miniature scale when compared to the military. As they began to lose the war some rebel’s occasionally used summary execution and intimidation to control civilians upon whom they depended for survival.
Sanford’s book is an important piece of modern Latin American history and anthropology, but its scope goes beyond any academic discipline. Ultimately, Buried Secrets is an investigation into the lived experience of war, state power, and racism in their most terrible forms.
Nothing to Fear, but…
by Kristian Williams
Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World
Copernicus Books, 2003
Bruce Schneier’s book Beyond Fear serves as a citizen’s guide to security. Rather than obsessing about the dangers of the post-9/11 world, or cheering about the wonders of computer encryption programs like PGP, Schneier explains how to think about security—how to assess risks, detect vulnerabilities, and take reasonable precautions. Without scare-mongering and salesmanship, the principles of security stand out clearly. And once one grasps the principles, the applications are broad—from gauging the reasonableness of the Patriot Act to protecting yourself from theft, from guarding business secrets to thinking strategically about social change.
Schneier, it seems, doesn’t just want to demystify security, he wants to democratize it. He wants an informed populace that can weigh the pros and cons of policy options, and he wants an organized rabble that can set its own agenda and see it influence what actually happens. First he gives us the bad news: “The security of the money in your bank account, the crime rate in your neighborhood, and the honesty and integrity of your police department are out of your direct control. You simply don’t have enough power in the negotiations to make a difference.” And then, the good: “But there’s a paradox. We’re not only individuals; we’re also consumers, citizens, taxpayers, voters, and—if things get bad enough—protesters and sometimes even angry mobs. Only in the aggregate do we have power, and the more we organize, the more power we have.”
This may not be what we expect from a man who works as a consultant for the Defense Department and Fortune 500 companies, but insiders tend to know what works and what doesn’t. Schneier specifically takes a hard look at the government’s response to the September 11th attacks, with step-by-step analyses of the current trends—official secrecy, military campaigns, the Terrorist Information Awareness network, the USA PATRIOT Act, the Computer-Assisted Passenger Profiling System, ID checks at airports, color-coded alerts, and the Department of Homeland Security. For the most part, he finds these efforts ridiculous: “When you examine the details, only two effective antiterrorism countermeasures were taken in the wake of 9/11: strengthening cockpit doors and passengers learning they need to fight back. Everything else—let me repeat that: everything else—was only minimally effective, at best, and not worth the trade-offs.”
Schneier makes the point, clearly and forcefully, that security always requires trade-offs— but he also notes that those trade-offs don’t have to include liberty and privacy. Put another way, rights can be seen as security measures. Of the USA PATRIOT Act and other measures that “give the government broader powers of surveillance and spying,” Schneier writes:
The problem with giving powers like this to the state is that they are far more likely to be used for the benefit of those in power than to protect citizens, and the reason the U.S. Constitution and the court system have put limits on police power is that these limits make all citizens more secure. We’re more secure as a society because the police have limited powers.
It follows, then, that removing the restrictions on police power makes us less secure overall.
Perhaps (but only perhaps) we are now somewhat safer from bin Laden and his minions, but we are more vulnerable to other kinds of attacks—including attacks from our own government. Meanwhile, overseas, American military action may also be creating more problems than it’s solving. Schneier writes: “If sending troops into this or that country to kill some Muslim extremists fans the flames of anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world and creates even more terrorists in the process, then it’s not worth it.”
But perhaps the emphasis on terrorism is wrong to begin with. Schneier offers some numbers: In 2001, 3,029 people in the U.S. died in terrorist attacks; 3,433 died from malnutrition; 41,967 died in car accidents; 71,252 from diabetes; and 156,005 from lung cancer. Judging from the actual damage they’ve done, we have more to fear from Philip Morris and General Motors than from Al Qaeda. Schneier asks us to “Consider what we’re willing to spend per year to cure diabetes or increase automobile safety, and compare that with the $34 billion [and more] we’re spending to combat terrorism. The response to the terrorism threat has not been commensurate with the risk.”
Beyond Fear is clearly written, engaging, and sometimes even humorous—but its real virtue lies in Bruce Schneier’s refusal to surrender rational thought to either fear or complacency. Schneier reveals how much of the debate about security is colored by panic, paranoia, and government opportunism, and by way of initial remedy, he administers a heavy dose of critical thinking.
Kristian Williams is a member of Rose City Copwatch, in Portland, Oregon, and the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (due out from Soft Skull in 2004).
A Game of Risk,
by John Reed
The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia
Grove Atlantic, 2003
What’s the next hotspot? Where will it be? A remote country in the Middle East? In Central Asia? What war will drive the journalists of the world to uncover the story? Will it be the diamond mines in Africa? Will it be simple starvation, somewhere else? Where will suffering suddenly erupt, disturbing the placid waters of the New World Order?
Perhaps the silliest of assumptions in the present-day media is the notion of “the story.” There is the idea that unhappiness and conflict represents a sort of brushfire in the landscape of the world—one that the world’s firemen, whether they be U.N. peacekeepers, or U.S. troops, or television pundits, will rush in with their trusty hoses to quell. But the fact is, there is a troubled reality to most of the globe, and, as Lutz Kleveman points out in The New Great Game, the angry young men of Al Qaeda make up only a fraction of the rage that threatens all of us.
Oil, yes. Kleveman maps out an introduction to the impact of U.S. and international strategies on Central Asia. The area, known in the last century as “the black hole of the Earth,” is an increasingly vital interest to those nations which make up the four percent of the global population but that consume twenty-five percent of global energy. Massive untapped oil reserves in the area of the Caspian Sea make the region a constant focus of international coercion and interference. Kleveman projects that “by 2015 the Caspian region could reach a share of five to eight percent of the world market.” The final result of this apparent wealth in oil is a bevy of damaged states in the area of the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Kleveman, touring the region, documents nations that range in aspect from the oppressive legacy of Stalin in Georgia, to the often surreal megalomania of the Turkmenistan president, Saparmurat Niyazov. In a creepily entertaining chapter called “Stalin’s Disneyland: Turkmenistan,” he describes the small nation in detail:
Appointed life-long dictator by a rubber-stamp parliament, Niyazov is convinced of his own divinity, and has reinvented his country as a gigantic theme park, with the only theme being himself. Almost every street corner in the capital has multiple portraits of the sixty-year-old stocky man with a soft and somewhat simple face. On some he looks like Burt Reynolds, on others like a genetic blend of Leonid Brezhnev and the German politician Franz-Joseph Strauss. All public buildings were decorated with banners proclaiming the state slogan Halk, Watan, Turkmenbashi (‘One People, One Fatherland, One Leader’).
Kleveman brings lucid witness to these incomprehensible realities. Flowing easily from the big picture to the small, The New Great Game dimensionalizes peoples and crises that have often exceeded the reach of popular consciousness.
The Times Were Changing,
by Theodore Hamm
Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art
New Press, 2003
It makes me angry when I see Dylan taken out of context. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann actually argues that George W. Bush’s “unperturbed confidence that the world can now be remade entirely” shows that Bush, too, is a product of the 1960s, and that W.’s rhetoric about bringing “freedom” to the Middle East is another variation on “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The ’60s, however, hold no special claim on the American idea of the world as a blackboard; such providential rhetoric is as old as the “city on a hill” itself. Meanwhile, a more persuasive argument regarding Bush’s relationship to Dylan is that the former, after listening to “Masters of War,” decided to become one of them.
Unlike most people I know, I make my case against the misuses of Dylan not as a devout fan of the man or his music. Truth is, I’m neither here nor there with him (okay, sometimes really here, sometimes really there). It’s just that as a student of American history, I seek to learn about cultural figures’ relationship to their eras, and to gain a clear understanding of why people gravitated to them. In Chimes of Freedom, Mike Marqusee does precisely this, skillfully rooting Dylan’s music in its proper place and time— i.e. the radical sixties.
In the early sixties, Dylan openly identified with the radical left, casting his lot with SNCC and refusing to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show after he was told not to perform his “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” But Dylan soured on his identity as a “protest singer” singing “finger-pointin’ songs” pretty quick—in 1964 to be precise, after only three albums and before the age of 25. In Marqusee’s view, Dylan’s ducking out early, just when things started to get hot, meant that he “helped make activism cool, and he helped it make it uncool.”
Yet if Dylan was confused about, or felt contradictory impulses toward, his political engagement, he was not alone. Though writing from the left, Marqusee candidly admits to identifying with much of the post-protest music, saying that he’s “more than once binged Dylan of this period [’65-’68], and relished his emotive attack on a movement that so rarely lives up to its claims.” At the same time, political diehards including the Black Panthers, who listened repeatedly to “Ballad of a Thin Man” while they laid out their formative newspaper, and the Weathermen, who famously took their name from “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” obviously found something very powerful in Dylan’s post-protest work as well.
Marqusee deftly connects Dylan’s pursuit of “authenticity,” in terms of his identities as an individual and as a performer, to the idealism found in the rhetoric of various movements of the day. He conveys the material in a snapshot style, in which he presents brief glimpses of parallel ideas found in key texts such as The Port Huron Statement or Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” His mini-bios of the pedantic Phil Ochs or the very political, yet very lyrical Curtis Mayfield make for useful comparisons, particularly in terms of the career choices artists must make. At times, the book does contain a bit too much quotation of lyrics, although this is surely the result of Dylan’s music itself having a lot to say.
Marqusee’s prior work, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999), succeeded in restoring the champ to his rightful place on the radical left of the era. Whether Chimes of Freedom can do the same for Dylan is less certain, precisely because the figure himself is so willfully slippery, and always ready to denounce any attempt to “pigeonhole” him. Yet Dylan’s life and work in many ways encapsulate the existential struggles of a once-radical generation. As Marqusee reminds us, the ’60s were a time of both genuinely utopian dreams as well as collective nightmares, and Dylan’s genius lay in his ability to articulate both impulses in the very same song.
by Ellen Pearlman
University of California Press, 2003
Hannah Higgins, child of Fluxus progenitors Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles, cut her baby teeth on legendary Fluxus events. She grew up and got her Ph.D. in art history at the University of Chicago. She consolidates her experiences into pithy statements like “The event and the Flux kit argue ontologically for the value of primary experience over secondary experiences.” This is a far cry from watching mannequin hands crash down on typewriters or a man stick his head in a pot of paint and drag it across an unfurled scroll of paper, as Nam June Paik did in his seminal performance.
Fluxus, of course, pretty much changed the art world during the 1950s and early ’60s. Although the inciting event kicked off with an international group of Germans, Korean, Japanese, and American artists, it was jumpstarted in a class John Cage taught at The New School from 1957 to 1959. That class birthed George Brecht’s event score where actions were framed as minimalist performances of imaginary events in everyday situations. Those scores spawned happenings, pop art, experimental film, theater and dance with both of the performance series at Yoko Ono’s downtown loft and George Macunia’s AG Gallery. The immediacy of experience changed “the traditional distinction between subject and object on which most of Western philosophy was historically based.” Higgins has written the definitive history of Fluxus, explaining what those artists did and why it mattered so much. She has paid high homage to her roots creating an instant classic in the field, using the vast resources at her disposal.