Fiction and non-fiction writer Nicholson Baker, whose wide-ranging, exploratory intellect towers over most of his peers in both fields, has just written the most controversial book of his career, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Since Baker’s career already includes industry-changing attacks on the destructive practices of library archivists, a novel about phone sex that figured in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, a novel about a frustrated American who very badly wanted to assassinate President George W. Bush, an intentionally goofy study of John Updike that breaks every rule of serious literary criticism, and a charming debut novel about a man riding an escalator in his office building, this makes Human Smoke very controversial indeed.
Baker’s thick book, a chronological log of historical snippets ending in 1941, attacks our cherished myths about World War II as a “good war”, and presents much evidence that this war’s most incredible horrors could have been avoided if America and Great Britain had not chosen to take advantage of Nazi Germany’s foolish military strategy by turning Hitler’s inevitable defeat into their own plan for economic and military domination of Western Europe and the Pacific Rim.
Human Smoke is not a fun book. It could not be further from the pleasures of The Mezzanine or the sweet Room Temparature. I hope the critical discussion that follows will be an intelligent one. So far, Commentary doesn’t think much of the book, but Mark Kurlansky in the L. A. Times considers it important.
I was glad to have the opportunity to discuss Human Smoke in a roundtable organized by Ed Champion for his Filthy Habits blog. The first of five installments is now up, and you can read my first impressions as well as those of others here.
I hope the myth-shattering aspects of this book — Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt come off very badly, for instance — do not distract readers from Baker’s more positive suggestion that the much-mocked philosophy of pacifism, as embodied by Mahatma Gandhi and many other hardworking activists of the pre-World-War-II era, may still offer the world hope for its future.
I agree with this message, and I am very impressed with Nicholson Baker’s bravery in writing this unusual book.
A couple of other notes. The talented blogger Maud Newton’s site has been unconscionably hacked by pharmaceutical spammers, and all her posts deleted. Fortunately, she was able to restore everything, but relying on a hosting service’s backup tapes to preserve a site of this stature is too close for comfort. I’d like to urge all bloggers to practice self-reliance: create your own backup CDs or DVDs of your SQL databases, preferably using the simple “mysqldump” utility or any other form of SQL backup. A hosting service’s backup facility is not usually guaranteed in a hosting contract’s terms of service, and even if it were, the hosting service can only be held financially responsible for the cost of the service, not the (often much greater) value of the content. Bloggers: backup thyselves.
What with the inhuman horrors of World War II and the aggravating injustice of spammers deleting valuable content, I find some meaning in this very short movie, “Dimwit Daryl Meets Vexed Volcano”, by my younger daughter Abby, who has just discovered that she can create her own animated GIFs. Like the vagaries of life itself, this animation loops forever.