Reviewing the Review: Sept 11 2005

Today’s Sunday New York Times Book Review feels thick, substantial, and full of provocative thought. I’ve got no insults to dole out today; this is a good issue.

Some issues of the Book Review seem to have a ‘backbone’, and in this case the structure is defined by two essays about the meaning of terrorism in modern society: a two-page spread, ‘Dangerous Characters’ by Benjamin Kunkel, and an endpaper by Tom Reiss, ‘The True Classic of Terrorism’.

Tom Reiss’s essay recommends a little known Joseph Conrad novel, Under Western Eyes, as a perceptive, complex statement about the motivations of those who embrace violence as political action. I have not read this book, but I’m going to now (I’ve been looking for some new Conrad anyway). This article does exactly what I want a NY Times Book Review article to do: it tells me things I don’t already know, and it tells me what book I’m going to read next.

I was also impressed, though not as much, by Benjamin Kunkel’s analytical piece focusing on a remark by Don DeLillo (a connisseur of abstracted literary violence whose books include Mao II, Libra (about Lee Harvey Oswald) and White Noise, his best, about a cloud of black smoke that engulfs a prosperous university town) that a novelist is something like a terrorist. They both toil in private for years in the vain hopes of creating a public sensation.

I think DeLillo is on to something there, but when I reflect further upon it, I’m not sure this really says anything at all. In the public dialogue about our world, I hear too many people wishing to identify with terrorists, and I’d like to declare that in my own capacity as a (completely unknown) novelist, I do not want my books to leash horror and violence all over the world. I just want to make people smile.

But I still like Kunkel’s article, because this stuff needs to be talked about. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if the poets and writers and literary journalists and academics of the world can’t speak with a clear and loud voice against violence … well, I don’t know who the hell can.

So the New York Times Book Review gets big applause from me today, just for getting some conversations started. Even if these conversations don’t always lead anywhere at all.

3 Responses

  1. killer!To say a writer is

    To say a writer is like a terrorist is an oversimplification. There are lots of jobs where one works in private for years before presenting their results, and not all writers want to cause a sensation.

    I’ve noticed a lot more slang has violent overtones, though. When my son takes on a new challenge, like surfing or skiing, he says he is “going to kill it,” mean he is going to master it. The same with songs. If he & his friends play a song well on their guitars, they say they “killed it.” I don’t know how significant this is.

  2. Yeah, that’s true — in fact,
    Yeah, that’s true — in fact, the first time I think I heard that (“you killed”) was at a poetry reading.

    Still, though — there’s killing and then there’s killing. You know what I mean?

  3. Yes, I do. In fact, it can be
    Yes, I do. In fact, it can be argued that using terms like this figuratively gives people an alternative to actually hurting each other. Kind of like in the old days when Father Flannigan would have kids fight it out in the ring with boxing gloves instead of gang rumbles with knives and chains.

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