Reviewing the Review: October 8 2006

I’ve heard good things about Cormac McCarthy’s new The Road, which presents a mysteriously blessed father and son wandering an ugly Earth wasted by nuclear holocaust. The Road sounds more “out there” than other recent novels by this author, and I wonder if it might be the first Cormac McCarthy book I’ll actually like. But first I want to know what William Kennedy will say in the cover article of this week’s New York Times Book Review, amusingly titled “Left Behind“. Kennedy treats the elderly western postmodernist with great respect, but I’m not quite sure if that means he likes his work. He offers the encouraging news that McCarthy has “put aside the linguistic excesses and the philosophizing for which he has been both venerated and mocked” (I don’t personally mind the philosophizing but I’ve found the linguistic excesses unbearable), and he describes the plot as a descent into horror as well as an obvious metaphor for Christianity. The article adds up to a lukewarm nod (“the scarcity of thought in the novel’s mystical infrastructure leaves the boy a designated but unsubstantial messiah”), which gives me the excuse I was looking for not to bother checking the book out. I really didn’t want to anyway.

Walter Kirn’s review of Ron Rosenbaum’s new The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups is fairly positive, which leaves it to me, the reader, to feel put off by the very concept that we need another major book about Shakespeare to offer more trite formulations about this writer’s greatness. “The works of Shakespeare, he argues, constitute a secular Bible as well as the only map that we possess to a supremely gifted human consciousness”. The only map? Cervantes and Euripidies needn’t have bothered showing up? What is Shakespeare now — an actual savior for all mankind? Maybe Cormac McCarthy should try writing about a Shakespeare symbol instead of a Christ symbol next time and see if he gets a better book out of it.

Yeah, I’m in a complaining mood today. I eagerly began Pankaj Mishra’s summary of Bruce Wagner’s new novel, Memorial, a satire of Hollywood anomie, naively impressed that the Book Review has actually managed to assign a book that has nothing to do with India to a critic with a name like Pankaj Mishra. It’s a breakthrough! Alas, five paragraphs into the review, several of the book’s characters run off to India, a country that, we are then told, is “a leitmotif in this novel”. And, apparently, racial profiling remains a leitmotif on 43rd Street.

But I’ll stand up for the Book Review when angry poet Franz Wright rails in a letter to the editor about critic Joel Brouwer’s recent takedown of Charles Wright. Franz Wright (no relation) rips into Brouwer’s crass metaphors and talentless delivery, proclaiming that Charles Wright has “long ago earned the right — regardless of any particular reviewer’s aesthetic — to be discussed, even to be disliked, with some degree of thoughtful reverence, as opposed to the still stylishly ironical and arrogant condescension to which even the New York Times Book Review unfortunately remains far too hospitable.”

I disagree. The Book Review is not in the reverence business, and thank god for that. I don’t really like Joel Brouwer’s arch style either, but arch is at least a few degrees better than pious.

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