Reviewing the Review: January 21 2007

Twenty-four pages, New York Times Book Review? Three skinny issues in a row, what the hell? I think a certain Mr. Tanenhaus has been mistaking global warming for summer vacation, but we’ll forgive him today, because today’s slender issue turns out to be significantly better than the last two.

We begin in good form with a stunning Tyler Hicks photograph of Norman Mailer looking rarely introspective and solemn, which accompanies an energetic, powerful five-page review of Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest by New Republic’s Lee Siegel (who may follow the article up with some Letters to the Editor under various names). But I don’t want to make fun of Lee Siegel, because I like his respectful and informative ode to Mailer’s career, a needed corrective to Janet Maslin’s recent silly slap-back in the daily paper.

But an article this ambitious must be held to high standards, so I will not hold back from stating a few problems. Siegel is too fond of hyperbole, as when he asserts that “Mailer is the only major American novelist to be really canny about politics.” Dumb thing to say, and I think Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, William Vollmann and even the coy John Updike are all more canny than Norman Mailer, whose politics are sloppy at best.

Siegel is also at times banal, pulling out old chestnuts like “slings and arrows” or wasting our time with unremarkable praise like this:

[The Executioner’s Song] has no marginal or “flat” character. Each figure possesses the roundness of his or her real life.

Round characters … what a concept. Siegel also misses several connections, talking about the ironic title The Castle in the Forest‘s Germanic translation, Der Waldschloss without pointing out that Kafka’s The Castle is Das Schloss. He also compares Mailer to every old writer in town but fails to compare The Castle in the Forest to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (in my opinion, a clear point of reference).

But I like it that Siegel rhapsodizes over Mailer’s use of roomy spacing in his book layouts, that he uses the word “19-centurily”, and that he seems intent on giving this controversial writer a fair shake.

Roy Blount Jr. turns in a pleasant and thoroughly positive review of a new edition of the Letters of E. B. White, and Liesl Schillinger is as colorful and wide-ranging as always on Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer (somehow she works biblical Sarah and Hagar into her findings, along with Hecuba, Anna Kerenina, Medea, Flaubert and Dostoevsky).

Lorraine Adams does a good job on the historical context of Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, another Turkish book under fire for speaking of the Armenian genocide. The endpaper by Joe Queenan on book review promotional cliches isn’t terrible, and Dwight Garner’s “Inside the List” column is a bright spot as usual (this week he focuses on Robert Stone, who I’m hoping to catch at a Borders’ bookstore appearance next week in Manhattan).

2 Responses

  1. Mailer vs. WolfeThere is an
    Mailer vs. Wolfe

    There is an old story about a feud between Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. I got my quote from The Guardian:

    “As far back as 1989, Mailer remarked: ‘In my mind, there is something silly about a man who wears a white suit all the time, especially in New York.’

    Wolfe brushed off the sartorial attack, simply pointing out that ‘the lead dog is the one they always try to bite in the ass’. To which Mailer quickly responded: ‘It doesn’t mean you’re the top dog just because your ass is bleeding.'”

  2. I saw Tom Wolfe at the
    I saw Tom Wolfe at the Chicago Humanities Festival, and I so wanted to ask him this question:
    “When you did the research on Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, were you wearing the white suit, and if so, what did they say?” but the Q&A session came to a close before I could ask it. But I still wonder….

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