Reviewing the Review: January 7 2007

I went on vacation and missed reviewing the last two issues of the New York Times Book Review, but don’t think for a minute I didn’t read them. The Book Review is like oxygen to me; I took a break from writing (which is hard work) but not from reading (which is not). If I had reviewed the last two issues, I would certainly have praised Gary Hart on Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope, Francine Prose on Dave Eggers’s What is the What? and D. T. Max on Florence Noiville’s biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

But that was then. This is now. I’m very happy about the news that hippie/Vietnam-era novelist Robert Stone has written a memoir called Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, and I would normally have been happy about the news that the Book Review assigned one of its better critics, Walter Kirn, to review it. Alas, Kirn’s article is uncharacteristically bad. Here’s his terrible opening paragraph, which seems to be a generic meditation upon the art of memoir-writing that bears no relation to Stone’s actual book:

Time passes, and what it passes through is people – though people believe that they are passing through time, and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time. It’s a delusion, but it’s where memoirs come from, or at least the very best ones. They tell how destiny presses on desire and how desire pushes back, sometimes heroically, always poignantly, but never quite victoriously. Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how, and alongside whom, one used his paddle.

Kirn: who cares about this crap? Tell us about the book you’re reviewing. I’d appreciate this unsolicited burst of metaphysics better if it actually said something, but Ludwig Wittgenstein would rightly choke on a formula like “Time passes, and what it passes through is people — though people believe that they are passing through time.” I’d like to invoke William James and ask Kirn exactly how we can tell the difference between people passing through time and time passing through people (if we can’t tell the difference, according to either James or Wittgenstein or any other worthwhile modern philosopher, then the writer is simply playing with words).

Kirn starts to recover from the bad beginning with a funny riff about a thick mass of penguins representing “Stone’s own generation sailing chaotically into view”. But he proves too eager to mock and minimize the idealism of the 1960’s, which he says “disappointed us” and gave us Timothy Leary and Charles Manson. Personally, I’d rather remember Martin Luther King, Abbie Hoffman and John Lennon, and I’d like to point out that most other decades (certainly including our current one) have disappointed us worse. Oh yeah, and what about Stone’s book? I’ll have to pick up a copy to get a clue what’s in it, since Kirn’s article is more concerned with other things.

On the positive side, Paul Gray’s review of Vikram Chandra’s 916-page Sacred Games is a worthy performance, and since I don’t have time to read 916 pages of Vikram Chandra anytime soon, it’s as close to the actual novel as I will probably ever get. Dave Itzkoff produces a lively consideration of Michael Crichton’s Next, and Elissa Schappel is amusing on the subject of Neal Pollack’s Alternadad.

I’m very happy (as is Ed) to see an endpaper by Richard Powers, How to Speak a Book, in which the superb novelist argues that computer-based dictation provides a more natural way to write than typing. Powers buttresses his argument with an impressive sweep of references from Milton to Dostoevsky to Beckett and Joyce, and it’s an enjoyable piece, but the novelist strains credibility with this passage:

What could be less conducive to thought’s cadences than stopping every time your short term memory fills to pass those large-scale musical phrases through your fingers, one tedious letter at a time? You’d be hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow.

This is surprisingly weak stuff. The author of Galatea 2.2 certainly knows that the human brain is capable of allowing output processes to send repititive motion impulses to the fingers without disrupting the flow of imagination or cognition. I am typing right now, and I am also thinking; there is no conflict at all. Also, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit hard-pressed to invent a greater barrier to cognitive flow than typing. Here are just a few: crying babies, day jobs, broken limbs, noisy friends, that horrible “My Humps” song by the Black-Eyed Peas. I could go on if you’d like.

If I seem to be complaining a lot, I’ll try to be nicer next week, but I also must point out an amazing coincidence of two (2) factual errors in this week’s issue both relating to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. George Johnson, opens his review of Freeman Dyson’s The Scientist as Rebel thus:

In June 1948, as Jack Kerouac was recovering from another of the amphetamine-fueled joy rides immortalized in “On The Road”, Freeman Dyson, a young British physicist studying at Cornell, set off on a road trip of a different kind.

WRONG. Jack Kerouac was on speed when he wrote On The Road years later (typing on a scroll, Richard Powers would like to know), but the Cassady-Kerouac On The Road adventures were mostly fueled by marijuana and alcohol. Walter Kirn then tells us, speaking of Robert Stone’s partner-in-crime Ken Kesey, who was briefly a fugitive in Mexico:

In time, Kesey’s hideout from the narcs up north becomes a Gilligan’s Island for shipwrecked beatniks, including Jack Kerouac’s old sidekick, Neal Cassady …

WRONG. Neal Cassady had been escaping to Mexico long before Ken Kesey showed up there. If anything, Ken Kesey was playing Gilligan to Cassady’s Skipper when he crossed the border.

I’m back, NYTBR fact-checkers. Did you think you got rid of me for good?

7 Responses

  1. Okay, how about … like
    Okay, how about … like indian food. And similarly inconsistent in quality.

  2. NiceYou don’t have to promise

    You don’t have to promise to be nice next week. Nice I can get anywhere. Insight is another story.

  3. euphoric momentsWhen Kirn
    euphoric moments

    When Kirn said, “and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time,” he was referring to that same momentum that Hunter S. Thompson spoke of, when we felt peace within our grasp and brotherhood within our Woodstock Nation. I’m not sure if Kirn means to imply that these changes were illusionary. Either way, I think it’s time we did it again!

  4. ThanksI totally needed to get

    I totally needed to get “My Humps” in my head today.

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