There almost always comes a moment, each Saturday as I greedily scour the weekend’s crisp new Sunday New York Times Book Review, when depression overtakes me, because the issue invariably manages to deflate my expectations.
On days like today, the Book Review doesn’t even give me the satisfaction of being terrible (that was last week). Days like today, the headlines are exciting (Terrency Rafferty on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kathryn Harrison on the philosophical tract On Desire, biographical considerations of Jean Jacques Rousseau, Willem DeKooning and Robert Louis Stevenson), and I begin reading with great enthusiasm, expecting a swirling mix of enlightenment, wit and knowledge … only to find, article after article, performances that achieve basic competence and go no further than that.
Are critics like Rafferty, Rachel Donadio, Stacy Schiff and Joseph Kanan just too busy to find a way to write brilliantly when the Book Review comes knocking for an article? The closest thing to an epiphany this weekend comes on the humble 32-33 page spread where, on the left-hand page, Lenora Todaro writes a vivid, animated report about Chilean novelist Alberto Fuguet, who has apparently been beefing with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Next door, Henry Alford seems quite amused by, and is quite amusing about, John Hodgman’s The Areas of my Expertise, a completely false reference book:
The success of books like The Onion’s Our Dumb Century (a parody of newspapers) and America (The Book) — a parody of civic texts — suggests that the fake reference work is, as they say in the culture industry, having a moment; Hodgman’s book is the leering, gap-toothed fife player in that bumptious parade.”
The New York Times Book Review needs more gap-toothed fife players.
Rachel Donadio’s endpaper helps the situation slightly, and failed to annoy me (as Donadio’s awestruck author interviews usually do — maybe the back page is a better fit for her). She has interesting points to offer on the subject of political figures who write novels, like Richard C. Clarke and Scooter Libby. My only quibble is that the article doesn’t mention my personal favorite Republican novelist, the charming Watergate felon John Ehrlichman, who turned out to be a fairly good writer. And, in the end … reminiscing about the literary career of John Ehrlichman was pretty much the high point of my encounter with this weekend’s New York Times Book Review.